DALLAS. The driver shortage is driving a serious look at self-driving trucks, just not in the way many people assume.

Despite persistent rumors of the demise of the long-haul truck driver in the coming age of automated transport, that time is decades away—and many of the advances between now and then will, in fact, make driving a much more desirable job. That's the takeaway from a panel featuring top industry engineers and analysts at the Commercial Vehicle Outlook conference here.

“People are very interested in automation,” said panel moderator Paul Menig, a technology consultant who previously led the safety systems division at Daimler Trucks and currently co-chairs the Future Truck/Far Horizon effort of trucking’s Technology and Maintenance Council. He cited a Seattle area survey that that confirmed the assertion, with a caveat: “They’re also scared as heck about actually [using autonomous vehicles]. They have to overcome the fear.”

Paradoxically, “the human factor” will be a critical element as trucks become smarter and smarter.

“We’ve done a lot of end-user research to come to the conclusion that autonomous vehicles will enable recruiting drivers,” said Sandeep Kar, global vice president for Frost & Sullivan and an expert in heavy truck systems and technologies. “[Trucking] will need to entice young drivers by giving them a work environment that is less stressful, less disenfranchised—that enables them to connect to the world outside. They want to be connected to their friends, to Facebook or whatever it is: You have to give them some time during their work cycle where they relax, sit back and watch their iPad.”

Currently, just 11% of the truck driver workforce in the U.S. is under 30 years old, Kar noted.

“This is a huge red flag,” he said. “If we want to bet on the U.S. economy, we have to attract young drivers. On the other side, the health, wellness, and well being of the aging drivers is becoming a major driver retention factor.”

As a result, truck makers are more focused than ever on “inside the cab,” based on the growth of investment on things like seating systems, visibility, steering, and the driver interface.

“It’s not by accident that we’re here to talk about automated mobility—it is by design, it is by reality,” Kar said.

Autonomous truck technology, he continued, will enhance driver performance: improved fuel efficiency, improved safety, improved compliance.

The catch, however, is that fleets will question the need to invest in the suite of technologies needed to achieve Level 3 autonomy (a truck that has the ability to take over the driving in certain situations, typically long highway stretches) if they also still have to pay drivers. But the substantial benefits to the supply chain and trucking operations that connectivity and big data will provide should mitigate those concerns.

Level 4 automation means no driver in the cab, and it’s “way out there,” Kar noted, pointing to a Frost & Sullivan market analysis that projects none of these trucks will be on the roads of North America in 2025, and just 300 or so in 2035. And the projection for Level 3 technology is only 3,160 trucks, although that total surges to almost 41,000 by 2035.

But the substantial market growth comes with Level 2 autonomy, or combined technologies that relieve the driver of control of each, which will hit 109,000 trucks in North America in 2025, and more than 200,000 in 2035.

“Long haul is the holy grail for any technology and, coincidentally, augmented driving applies the most in the long-haul truck market,” Kar said.

Ultimately, some agriculture, mining and defense niches are where the Level 4, fully autonomous vehicles will find a foothold.

“I’m not saying driverless trucks when they come in 2035 are going to take over the world,” Kar said. “But be prepared for a future where some trucking vocations will not require drivers.”

He puts the current cost of a suite of the technologies at $20,000, but that cost will go down over the next 10 years with wider adoption. However, the cost of the development of proprietary algorithms and the IT needed to support and secure them will become greater.

Kar concluded with his expert overview of “the future truck.”

“The future truck is going to be a green truck: it will save fuel and have a smaller environmental footprint,” he said. “The future truck will be a safe truck. It will save the life of the driver and people around them. It will be a connected truck, connected to the world outside and world outside will be connected to this truck.

“When you add these three together, it’s safe to assume the future truck will be a smart truck. The question that it begs is: Are we smart enough to embrace the future?”