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12.16.22  |  Insights

Driving the future of human-machine cooperation

Professional truck drivers key to the development and growth of PlusDrive highly automated driving solution

Truck driver driving with PlusDrive

Professional truck operators play a key role in shaping the PlusDrive highly automated driving solution, underscoring the importance of driver feedback for supervised autonomy technologies that improve trucking safety, efficiency, and driver comfort.

Plus, an autonomous trucking technology company headquartered in Santa Clara, California, employs a team of professional drivers, in addition to drawing on the experience of fleet customers already using PlusDrive, said Amisha Vadalia, Senior Director of Operations at Plus.

Collectively, those drivers have racked up millions of miles of driving in all weather conditions and geographies, making them invaluable trainers and a rich source of expertise as engineers work to continuously improve the PlusDrive product.

“For us to be able to aggregate driver learnings is a powerful thing,” Vadalia said. “Driver feedback is core to our tech development.”

Driver assistance takes center stage

While driverless vehicles are expected in the future, recent supply chain disruptions and the economic downturn show clearly that broad deployment of fully autonomous vehicles is at least a few years away, especially because regulations and public acceptance are still needed.

In the commercial trucking arena, the solution that is demanded now lies in highly automated driving technology that assists drivers by making their job safer and easier. The trend towards highly automated driving solutions is also seen in passenger vehicles, with the recent launches of Super Cruise by GM and DRIVE PILOT by Mercedes.

Plus’s progressive approach has led the company to the global commercial deployment of highly automated systems using the company’s autonomy technology. PlusDrive keeps a human driver in the cab and improves safety, efficiency, and driver comfort now.

With PlusDrive, truck drivers stay in the cabin to oversee the system, but they do not have to actively drive the vehicle. Instead, they can turn on PlusDrive to automatically drive the truck on highways in all traffic conditions, including staying centered in the lane, changing lanes, nudging over when large vehicles are in the adjacent lane, and handling stop-and-go traffic.

The technology improves safety, enhances driver comfort, and saves at least 10% in fuel expenses. It is already available as a commercial product, and PlusDrive-equipped trucks are currently being operated by some of the world’s largest fleets. 

PlusDrive: Designed for drivers with drivers 

It’s fitting that a solution designed to improve the lives of drivers on the road would rely on driver input to ensure maximum effectiveness.

PlusDrive reflects close collaboration between truck operators and engineers, who work together to identify feature requirements and refinements all the way through to testing, ensuring the system meets drivers’ needs while operating at the highest levels of safety. 

“There are no better people to talk to than our drivers,” said Robert Dingli, VP of Systems and Safety at Plus. His job, he said, is to “capture drivers’ knowledge and skills” in the set of requirements that govern the AI algorithms behind PlusDrive.

These algorithms, in turn, enable the trucks to analyze objects on the road and make a decision about how to respond.

Drivers also provide critical feedback on how PlusDrive performs on the highways where the trucks travel.

Lane changes. Safe following distance. Speed. Drivers know best.

Ticking off a long list of features that benefited from driver input, Vadalia noted the first iteration of PlusDrive kept the truck moving at the speed limit, with adjustments to maximize fuel economy. 

After it was discovered that some drivers employed by one of Plus’s largest customers liked the option of driving slightly below the speed limit in certain scenarios, engineers changed the feature to allow for dynamic speed adjustment.

Similarly, the original version of the PlusDrive lane change feature allowed drivers to tell the system to initiate a lane change. Drivers loved this feature and said that since the system is able to see much more acutely than the human eye, it would be great if the technology also alerted drivers when a lane change is beneficial.

“So it’s something that we rolled out,” Vadalia said. Now, in certain situations, such as when encountering a vehicle on the shoulder or a vehicle moving unsafely slower than the legal limit, PlusDrive will suggest a lane change.

Offering up yet another example, Vadalia mentioned that fleet drivers and managers have often raised the issue of bridge strikes, in which a truck tries to pass under a bridge or tunnel with low clearance, leading to a collision.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, bridges in the United States are hit on average 15,000 times a year, resulting in serious injury and death, damage to infrastructure and travel and commerce delays.

Plus engineers are currently working on a new feature designed to prevent bridge and tunnel strikes. It will be released in the near future via an OTA update.

Laying the groundwork for human-machine collaboration

As Plus engineers continue to update PlusDrive with new and improved features, drivers continue to provide feedback on what is working and what could be refined and enhanced. And as more fleets adopt PlusDrive, the collective wisdom of drivers will increase, further improving the technology.

As Vadalia explained, driver feedback aligns with Plus’s multipronged approach to technology development. “It is all about maximizing lots of different learnings,” she said, including using simulated and real-world situations to teach the system how to drive safely on public roads.

That combination of people and tech “gets us to a better and better place” in terms of safety, operational efficiencies, and driver comfort.

Proud to be leading industry transformation

Plus’s inclusive approach in its product development looks to be paying off. After his second demo drive on PlusDrive at Plus’s Santa Clara headquarters, veteran trucking journalist, Jack Roberts from Heavy Duty Trucking, said: “What I experienced on that drive convinced me that systems like PlusDrive will be a standard safety spec on new Class 8 tractors just a few short years from now. I predict the adoption rate will mirror what the industry saw when automated transmissions took off — the take rate is going to look like a hockey stick.”

For their part, professional drivers say participating in the testing and development of PlusDrive provides another important benefit: a gain in the satisfaction that comes from helping provide real-world advantages for fleets and drivers today, and not one day far off in the future. 

This article was originally published by FreightWaves:

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