I recently heard that driverless freight trucks were being tested on I-45, between Houston and Dallas. I immediately thought of the news as yet another example of how automation is taking our jobs. That was on my mind when I saw the trucks driving on the interstate.
It was cool seeing something newsworthy, in real-life. But after I left the truck in the wake of my dust, that cool feeling took a somber turn. As I drove alone in my thoughts, I started thinking of how that automated freight truck isn’t just delivering cargo, but also the end to truckers. I first thought of the stereotypical activities attributed to truckers, but as the miles went by, I pondered how automated trucking makes good business sense.
The trucks are impressive looking. They are bright blue and have a large array of sensors attached to the roof of the (almost obsolete) driver cabin. I could clearly see the video cameras and what looked like radar spinning on both sides of the truck. And as I passed the truck, I caught a glimpse of a man sitting behind the wheel.
Automated Trucks Make Sense
Automated trucking makes good business sense because it fixes problems associated with logistics, such as: human limitations, scheduling, legal liabilities, and transportation costs.
No Pesky Driver – There isn’t a driver to pay and companies won’t have to worry about truckers striking because of overwork and low pay.
Operate 24/7 – The trucks can operate 24 hours a day without stopping to eat, pee, or sleep. Automated trucks don’t care about holidays either. They can work 365.25 days a year without complaint or needing overtime pay.
Legal Compliance – Without an impatient or reckless human behind the wheel, automated trucks won’t feel tempted to drive above the speed limit. If the truck travels above the speed limit, there will be a digital record of the traffic violation somewhere in the company’s servers. Whether the company shares information on such legal infractions is another question. All the cameras and monitoring equipment will almost certainly be used to protect the company if/when accidents occur.
Reduced Costs – Automated trucks should drive down costs because: there’s no driver to pay, reduced shipping delays, and insurance premiums should decrease over time. But will consumers see lower prices at the store? Don’t hold your breath.
Automation is a tool for improving the company’s bottom line. Not yours.
Humanity in an Automated World
What jobs will be available to humans in a driverless world? Freight trucks need to be refueled somehow, so the job of Gas Pumping Station Operator may be resurrected. At least, until they find a way to automate that process too.
Even if a safe automated process for pumping gas is developed, it makes sense to keep gas pumping operators around. At minimum, they can perform inspections and clean bugs off the optical sensors. Pump station operators can be trained to perform more detailed maintenance as well. Just like the computer in my car, the computers in an automated truck or logistics system should detect if scheduled or emergency maintenance is needed. The system can calculate the optimum location to perform maintenance and automatically send a work order to local operators.
This is starting to sound like that 1997 movie, “Trucks”.
It’s given that accidents will happen. Tesla cars are in the news all the time because the autopilot feature keeps injuring or killing people. If these companies can’t get it right for consumer vehicles, what makes you think commercial vehicles will be safer?
How will these trucks be programmed to handle collision avoidance once they’re approved for completely automated operation? If a collision is unavoidable, how will the truck decide to maneuver and cause the least amount of damage? We don’t really know what types of sensors the trucks have, nor do we know what processing capabilities the on-board computer has. I doubt the trucks have the ability to see how many people are in each vehicle, so I’ve got to ask if the computers are programmed to prioritize avoiding certain vehicle types?
Most people would think an automated truck will maneuver to prevent human death or injury, but I can’t help wondering if the programming will prioritize company property over the lives of everyday drivers. We all should know by now that making money and avoiding liability is what drives greedy corporations, so I’m skeptical when I hear that safety is foremost on their minds.
It’s not just truckers who’ll be driving into the sunset, I can see automation taking other jobs too. Sanitation jobs are probably the least liked on the market. Most city garbage trucks already have an automated claw to grab your standard garbage bin and chug the contents into its maw, so I can see our cities taking a step forward by automating the entire process.
How confident are you in the maneuverability of automated garbage trucks in your neighborhood? Think of where your kids play, because we know the cheapest cameras will be used on city vehicles. If that’s the case, the vehicles may not be capable of detecting humans. If the vehicle notices at all, your child may be noted as an unregistered speed bump.
End of an Era
As more and more automated trucks are put on the road, truck stops and gas stations won’t cater to truckers any longer. You won’t be able to look up and see sexy truckers while driving down the interstate.
The writing’s on the wall… of the truck stop bathroom.
UPDATE DECEMBER 2022
With the recent risk of a rail strike and the subsequent economic disaster such a strike would cause to the economy, I’d like to point out that automated railroad transportation would definitely benefit the nation. Arguably, automating our railroad logistics makes more sense than automating the trucking industry.
- Trains move on rails and only go forward and backwards.
- Trains don’t weave in and out of traffic because they only “turn” at junctions.
- I’m not a programmer, but the programming needs for trains has to be simpler than trucking. Using collision avoidance as an example, there’s no need to enact elaborate collision avoidance maneuvers because trains can’t swerve out of the way. If the system detects an obstacle blocking the rail, it can easily trigger emergency brakes and blast the air horn faster than a human operator can react.
- Similarly, digital monitoring of the rails can help identify damaged tracks and trigger a maintenance work order. The system can detect and react to rail deformities faster than human operators, whom may not even notice until it’s too late. This could substantially reduce the risk of derailments.
- The signals at almost every railroad intersection are already automated and usually relies on a sensor near the intersection. These safety devices won’t require much modifications… if any at all.
I wonder why trains aren’t already automated.
 Human Infesting a Driverless Truck: In Texas, a human must be able to step in to operate the vehicle if necessary… at least, for now. Drivers may have to share the road with completely automated trucks in about 1-2 years.
 Speed Limit: There’s a possibility automated trucks will be granted exceptions to speed limit regulations. I don’t see the need for an exception to the speed limit because automated trucks can operate 24/7, but corporations are greedy. If there’s a business need for these automated trucks to move faster than established speed limits, the businesses who control our politicians will lobby to ensure these trucks are above the law.
 What about electric vehicles? It’s possible a fleet of automated trucks will be converted to electric if the technology is perfected. I doubt this will happen because gas/diesel power is quick and more reliable. The current battery technology allows cars to travel about 250 miles on a single charge, but those cars aren’t hauling several tons of freight. It takes about 30 minutes to recharge normal vehicle batteries, so consider how long it’ll take to charge a battery designed for freight trucks. Electric vehicle batteries cost a lot to replace and tend to wear out quickly, and are prone to exploding if overheated or overused.
The infrastructure already exists for gas-powered vehicles and it stands to reason that automated trucks will continue using diesel for years to come.
 Sexy Truckers: NSA-style relations with roaming truckers will be a thing of the past. Which means the guy advertising “services” on the wall of truck stop restrooms will have to find something better to do.