New Brunswick

Self-driving vehicles could replace truckers in not-too-distant future, expert says

Experts are looking down the road at technology that could change the trucking industry forever.

Prototypes are being tested in Nevada, and driverless truck will be a popular sight in 2020

Barrie Kirk, who runs the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, says driverless vehicles will be a common sight by the early 2020s. (Jason Viau/CBC)

Experts are looking down the road at technology that would change the trucking industry forever.

Barrie Kirk, who studies the progress of autonomous vehicles, said technology could solve New Brunswick's truck driver shortage — and fairly soon.

"When I first started four years ago, people thought I was a nerdy geek who had overdosed on science fiction," said Kirk, who runs the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence.

The goal of the organization, which Kirk co-founded, is to help Canadian corporations and governments prepare for self-driving vehicles.

"A lot of people realize it really is coming sooner than we expected."

Truckers in New Brunswick have said a national shortage of skilled drivers is having a negative impact on their working conditions and hasn't driven up wages as much as promised.   

It's unclear how many new truckers are needed in New Brunswick, but a national industry association says Canada will be short as many as 48,000 drivers by 2024.

Many people aren't willing to drive long distances for several weeks at a time, and those who are willing include many close to retirement age.

Kirk said automated vehicles will help solve the problem.

New Brunswick truck drivers say they're suffering because of a shortage of drivers, but an industry watcher says it won't be long before drivers aren't needed at all for long hauls. (John Bazemore/Associated Press)

"In four years it's gone from a source of humour to something that's really mainstream," he said of the driverless technology. 

"They know it's going to change their individual lives, businesses governments, society, infrastructure, the world."

But the technology presents some bumps in the road for local delivery service.

Robots are being developed to come to a person's door to drop off parcels, which could displace drivers.

"I would expect there would be some layoffs in the local delivery business."

The transit industry as well as the taxi business could also see layoffs as more self-driving vehicles get on the road.

On the road again

The self-driven vehicles will be able to drive themselves in difficult conditions, such as nighttime or winter, because they will include cameras to improve visibility.

Driverless trucks are being tested now, with the same technology developed for self-driving cars.

Prototypes are being demonstrated in Nevada and could be seen on the road in the early 2020s.

He said there will be a phase-in period for such trucks.

"Nobody's going to throw a switch and we suddenly have driverless trucks," he said.

Before the new technology is fully worked out, Kirk said, a human may be needed to drive a truck to the highway, pull it over and put it into autopilot. The truck would drive itself along the highway but another human would have to drive it into the destination city.

He said this would be a good intermediate step before the truck can drive itself completely.

"It's a lot easier to design the technology to drive a truck on the highway than it would be to drive it in the city," he said.

Experts are also hoping to see a corridor from the East Coast to Western Canada that would consist of a dedicated lane or separate road for automated vehicles.

A group called the Central North American Trade Corridor Association, a non-profit organization, is also doing work on an autonomous truck corridor between Mexico and Manitoba.

With files from Information Morning Saint John, Rachel Cave