February 2017

Self-Driving Trucks Just Around the Corner?

Ten years ago, at a trucking industry meeting, we raised the possibility of seeing driverless semi trucks in the not too distant future. The topic was panned.

Last fall, at the same meeting, self-driving trucks was the No. 1 discussion point, so clearly things have changed.

In fact, while all the talk and publicity have been focused on self-driving cars, the trucking industry is where R&D on autonomously piloted vehicles has steadily been moving forward. Two years ago, Daimler tested the first self-driving semi truck in Nevada.

In October of 2016, an automated Anheuser beer truck drove 120 miles from Fort Collins to Colorado City, Co. Not a drop of suds was spilled along the way. The project was a joint effort between Anheuser and Otto Motors, which along with its parent, Clearpath Robotics of Waterloo, Ontario, developed the self driving semi. Otto’s technology is so promising that Uber bought the company in August for $680 million even though Otto was less than a year old.

The Colorado trip was big news. Here’s an edited version of an interview with Scott Simon of NPR and New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo discussing the future of self-driving semi trucks.

SIMON: What's it like to be in one of these trucks?

MANJOO: Well, surprisingly normal. The trucks so far - the ones that they're running so far - have a driver sitting in the seat, then he flips a button and the truck just kind of takes over. It's basically like looking at someone flip on cruise control, except here, when the driver took his hands off the wheel, the wheel kept turning as the road moved ahead.

SIMON: I mean this question utterly seriously because I gather there were some tweets about it this week. We're talking about a beer truck delivery. Is it possible that some fraternity at the University of Wisconsin could hack into a beer truck and get it delivered to their frat house instead of the market?

MANJOO: This is one of the concerns with self-driving trucks, self-driving cars and generally more of our kind of national infrastructure becoming digital, becoming automated. This is one of the questions I think looming over the whole sector is the security both from hacking but also from mishap - just sort of inadvertent bugs in the system that could cause real problems in the real world.

SIMON: And will this ultimately throw human truck drivers out of business?

MANJOO: This company Otto, which Uber recently purchased, they argue that the human truck driver, at least in the foreseeable future, in the next, perhaps, 10 to 20 years, the human truck driver won't be completely eliminated from the truck. So on residential streets, on other streets where it's both more difficult to drive a truck, the human truck driver might still be necessary at that point. And the truck driver does other things like unload the vehicle, perhaps, fill out the paperwork, you know, do a lot of white-collar type work in the cab. Their sort of vision for this is that if you get this technology in your truck, you can make your truck twice as efficient and your job perhaps slightly easier. Now, of course, they're making the technology so they're sort of putting the best face on this. Truck drivers I spoke to weren't as enthusiastic about this whole proposition. So I would say that there are both sort of technological changes here but also social changes. And those social dynamics - the idea of a truck driving down the road and no one is in it might be so alien to people that it might take a very long time before we're comfortable with that.

SIMON: Well, let me point out that people used to be that way about elevators. We think nothing of it now in the tallest buildings in the world.

MANJOO: It's true. So it's possible we'll be that way with trucks and cars at some point. My own feeling is that it's probably going to be at least 20 years until that happens, perhaps longer.

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Many things are pushing this technology, not the least of which is safety. In 2012, 330,000 semis were involved in accidents that killed nearly 4,000 people, most of them in passenger cars. About 90 percent of those accidents were caused by driver error.

Questions still need to be answered and it’s hard to know how soon self-driving semi trucks will become a common part of the industry landscape. The only thing we know for sure is that it’s coming. And it likely will be sooner rather than later.