Computers Take the Wheel: Driverless Trucks May Arrive Sooner Than You Think


Trucker hats are about to become obsolete, at least for those in the transportation industry.

“If you had told truckers a year ago they were in danger of being replaced by a robot, they would have laughed at you,” says Jack Roberts, executive editor of Commercial Carrier Journal and equipment editor for its sister magazine Overdrive. “Now they see it as a real possibility. Everybody in trucking is mildly freaked out by this.”

Roberts is one of many experts in the field who believe that an automation overhaul in transportation is inevitable and will arrive sooner than you think. “We’re moving to a global super-economy that’s basically powered by the Internet with faster, transparent logistics. Trucking is the tip of the spear.”

Overcoming Driver Shortages

After years of driver shortages, the commercial trucking industry is beginning to acknowledge that automated fleets of trucks, and maybe even trains and ships, will likely move every piece of the food-supply infrastructure chain, from canned goods sold at grocery stores to fresh steaks cooked at a high-end restaurant. For many experts, the only question is when.

The “robots” in question won’t look like Rosie from “The Jetsons” — they’ll be systems integrated into cars and trucks, using cameras, radar, GPS and the Internet to plot their movement.

Google has been leading a fleet of companies working on driverless-car technology, but everyday consumers won’t be able to buy these cars for at least a few more years. Even then, there’s no guarantee they’ll be inexpensive enough for anyone to own or that laws will be in place to make them street-legal everywhere.

Safer Than Human-Driven Highways

Commercial use of autonomous vehicles, however, might happen much sooner, says Noël Perry, a transportation consultant and analyst at FTR Transportation Intelligence who has been studying the future of autonomous vehicles.

“It’s going to happen for this reason: You can deliver at a fundamentally higher capacity and it’s fundamentally safer than human-driven highways. Your 16-year-old son is one hell of a lot more dangerous than an automatic car,” Perry says.

If you eliminate the long-distance drivers in food transportation, you eliminate fatigue, cell-phone distraction, human error and driver shortages.

In May, Daimler Trucks North America rolled out its first self-driving semi, licensed to drive only in Nevada for testing. The company said that while self-driving trucks may not be ready for the roads at large for 10 years, they could cut down on 90 percent of crashes caused by drowsy or distracted long-haul drivers.

Connecting Continents by High-Tech Highways

Roberts says that transportation futurists imagine that in 50 years, the continents might even be connected by high-tech highways — yes, highways across the oceans — that allow rising middle-class consumers around the world direct access to food shipped entirely by autonomous trucks.

“As this happens, in terms of factory farming, the U.S. will become the breadbasket of the world,” Roberts says. Tech-driven farming and production improvements will increase yields and more far-flung parts of the world will be able to realistically receive those food supplies.

With improved safety, the size of the trucks themselves can increase, but the real gain will be in networked trucks that can drive in larger caravans at close distances, delivering more goods in less time and increasing highway capacity as much as threefold.

Consumers will benefit from produce and meat that arrives sooner and will be handled by fewer humans hands, so it will have a longer shelf life and arrive in more uniformly attractive condition. As more people order groceries online, supermarkets will transform into distribution centers that are also open to the public.

The technology could help bring larger varieties of food to more far-flung locations across the globe and get it there fresher than is possible today.

Are Drivers Really Obsolete?

Transportation companies would save on the cost of training drivers, not to mention their salaries and hotel and food expenses, and the driverless fleet will have better fuel efficiency.

However, Roberts says, nobody’s expecting completely driverless trucks to hit the road anytime soon. Current laws require a driver to be in the vehicle at all times. So truckers may take on more of a hands-off-the-wheel truck supervisor role in what Robert describes as a “cruise control on steroids” convergence of driver-assistance technologies. They’d have more time to communicate with family on the road, but they’d still be in the driver’s seat, so to speak. “You can’t pop into the sleeper and grab a Snapple, for instance,” Roberts says.

Driverless vehicles would also require constant monitoring to prevent theft or hijacking, tampering of food supplies or the hacking of fleets. In one worst-case scenario, a driverless truck could be used as terrorist weapon by remote control. They’ll also have to contend with human drivers on the road, who will be much more error-prone than their automated counterparts.

Perry says some of those risks exist now with human drivers, who are also susceptible to hijacking or theft. Technology companies, he says, will need to develop ways to detect such incidents and engage kill switches to disable vehicles immediately when they happen.

The trucking industry is grappling with the potential loss of human jobs and the effect that an autonomous fleet of trucks would have on truck-stop towns across the country that rely on the income from those pit stops for food, showers and sleep.

But Roberts says the industry is already in a crisis. “You have truckers grousing about robots taking their jobs, but the fleets are grousing about not having enough drivers. That’s it in a nutshell,” he says.

For years, the trucking industry has been made up of workers who are aging out without younger workers coming in to replace them. “We have fleets right now that are desperate, desperate to find drivers,” he said, for the 9.2 billion tons of freight that travels each year on 3 million heavy-duty Class A trucks, according to the American Trucking Association. There are about 3 million trucking jobs, but the industry is short about 25,000 to 30,000 drivers at any given time.

“There’s a lot of hand-wringing,” Roberts says. “But we’re looking at a very fundamental shift in how we move freight and how we handle labor.”

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