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The Last Word

Self-Driving Prophecy

By David O'Neal CDS

Some headlines predict “Robot trucks could replace 2 million drivers by 2030;” some titles ask “Trucks with no drivers?” Others just report our anxieties “From cowboys to robots: truckers wary of autonomous rigs.”

Truckloads of ink and more than a few bytes of data have been (and will continue to be) generated on the subject of how autonomous technology will affect the role of truck driver. Is there a signal in all this noise?

Here is what we know: (1) The trucking industry continues to deal with a shortage of qualified drivers; (2) Technology doesn’t just evolve, it often appears to make exponential leaps forward; (3) Much of the necessary technology already exists and is in use across all types of vehicles; and (4) Up to 90% of all vehicle crashes are the result of human error.

That last one sticks with me. While the professional drivers of the trucking industry are among the safest drivers on our highways, the motorists with whom they share the road often are not. If safer highways are among the outcomes of the growth and expansion of autonomous technology, then these efforts are worthwhile.

The common objection is that the technology isn’t perfect, as evidenced by the 2016 crash involving a Tesla vehicle being operated in self-driving mode. While recent reports indicate the driver ignored repeated warnings to put his hands on the wheel, there remain questions about why the system didn’t brake the vehicle in time to avoid a collision, and why it continued to operate even after the initial crash.

The current machines may be imperfect still, but humans (myself included) will be imperfect always, susceptible to fatigue and distraction, lacking timely reflexes. The computers are capable of performing countless calculations in less time than it took you to read this sentence and have the capacity to make us all safer. However, that assumes the system “uptime” is virtually 100%. Even 99% won’t cut it; that missing 1% translates to 7.3 hours of “downtime” per month. For reference, 99.9% still allows for 43.8 minutes of failure, with 99.9999% allowing 2.63 seconds per month.

If the machines are so much better than humans, what happens to the millions of human truck drivers?

We are told that drivers will have a role to play “for the foreseeable future”. But I’ve yet to see a practical solution that squares the circle of keeping a driver engaged, alert and ready to react over an extended period of time, should the technology fail along the way. Unlike the pilot allowing his aircraft to operate on autopilot who may have several seconds (if not minutes) to respond to a critical event, the reaction time needed behind the wheel of a truck (or any vehicle operating at highway speeds) is measured in quarter-seconds.

As an optimist, I want to believe the technology will prove itself and earn the confidence of the public. Perhaps, then, driver qualifications can be relaxed and today’s training requirements diminished. That provides a potential solution to – or at least mitigates – the driver shortage concern, and yet replacing 2 million drivers by 2030 seems far-fetched.

It’s just twelve-and-a-half years away. We like those future-markers; they’re usually far enough away to seem futuristic, yet reasonable – within our careers and lifetimes. But they’re artificial and often hyperbolic. A “spiritual goal” to gin up interest in the topic and draw eyeballs to articles, they make assumptions based on trends that are almost immediately outdated by new technology, a changing cultural and political landscape and other factors that don’t yet exist.

It’s a nice thought though. To imagine a future with safer highways by way of robots. But I wouldn’t count the driver out so soon.

No matter what the headlines say.

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