The day of the driverless car is fast approaching. Advances by companies like Uber, Tesla and Waymo have virtually every automaker scrambling to produce the first commercially viable fully autonomous vehicle. Local, state and federal lawmakers are working furiously to craft legislation that keeps pace with the rapid advance of driverless technology. So far the legislation has been limited to cars and light trucks, but can commercial semis be far behind?
A Reason for the Silence
Interstate trucking is big business and carries lots of lobbying clout. Teamsters president James P. Hoffa said in a statement that “It is vital that Congress ensure that any new technology is used to make transportation safer and more effective, not used to put workers at risk on the job or destroy livelihoods.” It is estimated that if long-haul trucks were fully automated, upwards of 4 million jobs could be lost. Without question, this would have a negative effect on the economy. However, this is not an immediate concern.
American Trucking Association President Chris Spear addressed the potential impact of automation on driving jobs during a congressional inquiry last year.
“What we’re really talking about is not displacing drivers. I think you’re always going to need drivers in trucks in the cityscapes to do the pickups and deliveries. If you equate it to pilots, you still have pilots in the cockpit. They do that taxiing; they do the takeoff, they do the landing. What we’re talking about is at cruising altitude hitting that autopilot button. For a trucker, it’s really the long-haul. That’s where you really get the return on this kind of investment.”
If you have ever witnessed a truck maneuvering in a crowded urban environment, you probably at the very least realized what a delicate and skill intensive activity this is. The idea that a machine could be trained to duplicate the efforts of a skilled professional in this situation is almost mind-boggling. On the other hand, if you ever been on a long road trip, you may have experienced the intense fatigue that accompanies prolonged attention to the driving task on the open highway and may have even experienced “highway hypnosis” where attention wanders due to the tedium of mile after mile. It is in these situations where automation could shine, allowing the driver times of respite where he or she could mentally refresh without holding up whatever payload the truck was delivering.
There’s No Putting it Off
Automakers have been clear that the day when driverless cars will dominate the roadway is still decades in the future and the day of the driverless truck is farther away than that. However, that day will come and for that to happen, testing needs to begin now. It is necessary for the development of tomorrow’s technology and for the safety of today that Congress sharpen their pencils and get to work on legislating testing for big rigs as thoroughly as they have for cars and other light vehicles.