NRMCA informs FMCSA of automated mixer trucks’ promise, limits

From the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association response to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s invitation for comment on a new policy document, “Ensuring American Leadership in Automated Vehicle Technologies: Automated Vehicles 4.0” … Automated mixer trucks hold immense potential for increasing industry safety, supplementing current driver operations and solving driver shortage issues, while increasing the effectiveness, efficiency and safety of ready mixed concrete operations and placement.

The industry sees potential with the evolution of automated vehicles and corresponding regulatory structure. As this discussion continues to evolve and the safety of automated vehicles grows, the industry envisions a process whereby ready mixed concrete delivery will rely on a smaller driver to truck ratio. Currently, it is one to one, a proportion that continues to be more challenging to meet with fewer and fewer drivers available to operate the industry’s trucks. Through advancements in automated technology, the scheme the industry is focused on for the near future is one where a driver brings a mixer to the point of concrete placement, such as a construction site, unloads and then sends the truck back along the same route.

However, the driver will stay behind at the site to accept and unload more deliveries that would travel along the same initial route. Specifically, within in any new regulatory structure, the process would transpire using either Society of Automobile Engineers Level 3 or Level 4 automated trucks as follows: A batch plant receives data directly from a connected construction site with a request for a concrete mix, order quantity, placement location, and delivery time. The construction site is then prepared to accept the load. The plant produces the right mix and quantity of concrete remotely and automatically using batch control technology.

The mixer truck autonomously positions itself under the plant, is loaded and then ready to go. The truck, equipped with global positioning systems, sensors, 5G network service, and/or other devices, autonomously adjusts its route through the city to avoid traffic, increase fuel efficiency (or recharge battery on electrified road), and arrive at the jobsite on time. If necessary, the concrete truck sends data back to the concrete plant that vehicle maintenance is due when it returns (i.e. needs air in tires, hydraulic valve replacement, new rotor).

The concrete truck arrives on the construction site. The connected construction site sends data to the vehicle, as well as the other equipment and personnel to direct the mixer safely to the placement location. (In some cases, an operator may be needed due to the ever-changing construction site.) The truck places concrete at the requested time and specified rate, initiated by a remote signal from the operator or placement crew. After placement, the vehicle is directed to a designated rinse-off area on the construction site, removed from other equipment and personnel, where concrete is autonomously rinsed from the chute, back into the mixer. The truck is now ready to go back to the concrete batch plant. The mixer again autonomously adjusts its route through the city to avoid traffic, increase fuel efficiency (or recharge battery on electrified road), and arrive back at the batch plant safely and in an efficient manner.

Specific to the ready mixed concrete industry and SAE Level 3 and Level 4 automated trucks, NRMCA does not see a need for restructuring the current regulatory scheme. It believes that management of autonomous ready mixed concrete vehicles will still need to be overseen by industry personnel. As is necessary through current regulations, they will still need to hold commercial driver’s licenses, adhere to hours of service, abide by distracted driving rules, inspect vehicles, and observe numerous other regulations for companies, drivers, operators and mechanics.

NRMCA commends the U.S. Department of Transportation on its vision detailed in AV 4.0. As much, NRMCA believes that the structures, scope and ideals outlined will fit into the scenarios highlighted above. Moving along the focus of AV 4.0 will allow for the advancement of the ready mixed concrete industry. This system and process will increase safety on our nation’s roadways and construction sites, as well as help to unburden the critical national issue of a driver shortage. This same process aims to streamline ready mixed concrete delivery allowing for greater effectiveness and efficiency.

NRMCA represents an industry with 2,250-plus companies that operate 6,500 concrete plants and a fleet of more than 77,000 mixer trucks, with a payroll exceeding 125,000 production and delivery professionals. Membership consists of local, regional, national and multinational companies that operate in every Congressional district. Roughly 85 percent of all U.S. ready mixed concrete companies are small businesses.

The industry produces a material vital to virtually every construction project. From roads and bridges, to homes and high-rises, our built environment could not be realized without the use of ready mixed concrete. In 2019, the industry is estimated to have produced more than 375 million cubic yards of ready mixed concrete, valued in at more than $40 billion.

Kevin Walgenbach is NRMCA Senior Vice President, Compliance and Regulatory Affairs. He frequently interfaces with the U.S. Departments of Transportation and Labor, plus the Environmental Protection Agency, on regulatory matters, memoranda or guidance affecting ready mixed concrete producers.