By Matt Timmons
Vice President, OEM Engagement

Driving and mobility in America are changing, and they’re posing new challenges and opportunities for all automotive industry stakeholders.

To point to one of the more serious examples today, fleet managers are acutely aware of the changes impacting the driver pool that makes the American trucking industry work. The American Trucking Associations forecasts that if trends continue along their current path, the trucking industry will be short 175,000 drivers by 2026—and that could create a major logistics nightmare.

According to Business Insider, “Fewer drivers mean that fewer goods can be moved in a timely fashion, which limits companies from selling more and consumers from enjoying what they’re used to finding in stores or online. A lack of drivers is already delaying orders and making goods more expensive as freight rates climb.”

Meanwhile, that’s not the only issue hamstringing the truck industry of today and tomorrow. The article further notes that general inefficiency—miles driven without freight, the amount of time truckers are kept waiting at freight docks, and the lengthy shipment brokering process—is just as critical a problem as a driver shortage.

Where does that lead us? Automation, of course. Robotic and automated technology has taken numerous industries by storm in recent years, not least because a general shortage in skilled workers is making an impact. Manufacturing, for instance, has similar labor woes, and many operations have outfitted their assembly lines with new robotic equipment to make the job safer, easier and more productive for the employees they do have.

Over the past several years, of course, automakers have already been introducing subtle levels of automation into common vehicles. Things like lane change assist, parallel parking systems, collision avoidance and more. The shift toward automation is already happening, in ways that many consumers probably don’t even realize.

Greater progress is underway, too: At January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES)—one of the world’s biggest tradeshows—Daimler Trucks executives announced the company plans to invest about $570 million into high-automated heavy-duty trucks within the next decade. Those trucks, Daimler says, will be classified as “Level 4” on a scale of 1–5, and the first of them are intended to hit the road within ten years. Level 5 means no human driver is necessary, and that means Daimler is approaching full autonomy.

Daimler’s appearance was also notable at CES—it’s about consumer electronics, after all. As Freight Waves notes, “This is the first year Daimler Trucks has visited CES. The presence of a commercial trucking company at the world’s biggest consumer electronics show shows how much technology has flattened the worlds of consumer and business tech.”

Is this the new normal? It’s hard to say with certainty, but at Lubrizol, we believe that global automakers will continue to push the envelope here. Over the next several years, OEMs will settle around the best strategies to deliver reliable, and most importantly, safe automated technologies to the marketplace.

But in real-world terms, an important distinction to be made is that vehicles will certainly become automated—not necessarily autonomous. While the concept of a “driverless” vehicle has been the futuristic ideal being sought by some of the industry’s biggest thinkers, true autonomy is far more challenging than perhaps was originally thought. Outside of the traditional automotive hubs in America—i.e., Silicon Valley—tech companies are pressing toward the driverless car of the future, but not without issue. Some have posited, for instance, that driverless cars would be a lot easier to develop if pedestrians just behaved more predictably. Of course, that’s no easy problem to solve.

These issues, we believe, point more toward the more immediate feasibility of semi-automation—as seen with the types of technology companies like Daimler are beginning to deploy. We could see a world where most fleet trucks are operated automatically, with a “driver” aboard primarily as a fail-safe if something were to go wrong. Tomorrow’s rideshare vehicles could be operated similarly.

Automation in heavy-duty trucking, specifically, boosts efficiency in truck operation, helps eliminate driver fatigue, and makes possible new fleet techniques like platooning, where two or more trucks are linked in a single convoy, using connectivity technology and automated support systems to maintain a set, close distance between each other while traveling on the road. Platooning has been shown to lower fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, improve safety with automated braking, and optimize freight transport by delivering more goods faster. This explanatory roadmap about platooning from ACEA is worth a full read.

Achieving these goals requires new technology and innovation across the drivetrain from automakers, and it won’t necessarily be simple. All vehicles, whether passenger car, heavy duty or somewhere in between, have become increasingly sophisticated over recent years. New technologies that drivers have come to depend on (think backup cameras, lane assist, etc.) add functionality, but also add complexity to the overall vehicle.

Over the long term, automated vehicles will inevitably experience certain issues and challenges that we can’t yet foresee without millions of miles of real-world testing and data collection. Under an automation regimen, a heavy-duty truck engine (which, of course, will also continue to evolve) may run for much longer periods of time without a fatigued driver needing a pit stop every few hours.
At Lubrizol, we’re deeply invested in helping OEMs overcome their future challenges with additive and fluid technologies that enable automation, electrification and any other frontier technology. Engines and other powertrain components will need optimized, and in many cases, customized technologies—including essential, high-performing lubricants—to provide the efficiency and durability needed to satisfy their customers.

Our view: The powertrains of the future require fluids of the future. Lubricants contribute to long and useful lifespans for vehicles, and are an essential part of the equation for new technology to meet its full potential. For OEMs, we believe that the right fluids must be strongly considered as new technology throughout the vehicle is designed and deployed as we work toward the vehicle of the future.