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February 2, 2023

Remote-controlled trucks could fill human gaps in transportation sector

Written By: Alex Holloway

You don’t have to work in the transportation industry to feel the impact of America’s trucker shortage.

Across the United States, the issue, which has simmered for years, reared its head as the nation’s supply chain struggled to accommodate a nation settling into “normal” life after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers in the College of Engineering are looking at remote-controlled trucks as an option to help alleviate the pressure on the nation’s trucking industry.

The American Trucking Association reported in October 2022 that the industry was 78,000 drivers short in 2022—only a few thousand drivers lower than a historically high 81,000 in 2021. If the current trends hold, the ATA says the shortage could more than double to 160,000 drivers by 2031.

Madhav Chitturi
Madhav Chitturi

Without enough drivers to move them around, goods pile up in shipyards and warehouses, lengthening wait times for products to get to store shelves. That strained supply drives up costs for consumers.

As the shortage draws increased attention, some have pointed to automated vehicles as potential relief valves for the shortage. Madhav Chitturi, a researcher with the Traffic Operations and Safety (TOPS) Laboratory in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, says that though automated vehicles may one day prove to be the answer for the shortage, there’s a lot of research work and testing still to be done to make that a realistic option.

“The industry is interested in automation,” Chitturi says. “But we’re still quite far away from full automation. It might be decades.”

In the interim, remote-piloted trucks may provide an alternative. Conceptually, a remote-pilot system would work via operators in a centralized control hub who “drive” trucks across a region or the country. It’s kind of like a life-sized video game.

To test remote piloting’s feasibility, the research team will work with licensed truckers to participate in simulator experiments. In those experiments, the drivers operate simulated remote-controlled trucks, and researchers gather feedback on how well the trucks performed under that remote guidance. At the same time, other drivers control passenger cars in the same simulator environment.

“One of the ways we can tell if someone is driving distracted or under the influence is their behavior,” Chitturi says. “If they’re drifting all over the place, then we can tell that something is wrong. If these drivers who represent passenger cars on the road can’t tell that something is different about the trucks, then that’s a success to us.”

Chitturi says a remote hub for piloting trucks could, conceivably, improve the work lives of America’s truckers by addressing some of the job’s biggest challenges: long hours on the road, and being away from loved ones for potentially weeks at a time. Opening the work to an additional type of job may attract groups of people who aren’t currently represented in the trucking industry.

However, Chitturi says there are challenges. One of the biggest is determining what happens if the signal between the central hub and the truck goes out, or experiences latency. “What happens if you’re out in the middle of nowhere with poor signals? That’s a question we have to assess if this is going to be seriously looked at,” he says. “Is there a way to keep the vehicle operating safely? We have to be sure the onboard automation can bring the vehicle to a safe state.”

There are also human elements to figure out—for example, whether the control stations are simple computers with screens, or if they’re more immersive, set up like a truck cabin, with a steering wheel front and center.

UW-Madison researchers are collaborating with economist Brad Hershbein from the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research and Steve Viscelli of Freight Research Inc. They’ll help answer questions like how a shift to remote piloting might impact training new operators or retraining existing truckers for remote work. They’ll look at how that change could affect areas where truckers currently live and work.

“This isn’t something that one discipline can solve,” Chitturi says. “You might have the technology for something, but that’s just a means to an end. We need to consider societal impacts, and that’s where we bring in this multidisciplinary expertise. This could be great for technology, but is it worth it if it decimates rural areas because those jobs are suddenly gone? While this can help solve a problem, we want to be sure it does not create other problems.”

TOPS Lab Executive Director and research principal investigator David Noyce says the project is a shining example of the multidisciplinary work the College of Engineering is known for. He’s seen that commitment grow since he joined ranks of engineering academia more than two decades ago.

“The thought of working with such a broad team in transportation engineering research was not as common when I became a faculty member,” Noyce says. “Grants tended to have a single principal investigator with a team of graduate students. The move toward this very broad multi-principal-investigator team from different engineering and academic departments and areas of expertise is what makes our college, and our research in general, so special today.”

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor and Associate Dean of Graduate School Parmesh Ramanathan, Bernard A. and Frances M. Weideman Professor of Mechanical Engineering Dan Negrut, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Xiangru Xu, and Industrial and Systems Engineering Assistant Professor Tony McDonald are also working on this project.

The National Science Foundation is backing the research, which is scheduled to run for three years, with $1.7 million.

Featured image caption: College of Engineering researchers will use this simulator in a study to determine the feasibility of using remote systems to control semi-trucks. Remote controlled trucks may help alleviate a worsening labor shortage in the trucking industry. Photo credit: Joel Hallberg.