Driverless trucks: Where we are and where we’re going

(Photo: Shutterstock)

(Photo: Shutterstock)

The very nature of everyday life is changing rapidly as technology advances, and the transportation industry is no exception to this.  With the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) capable of automating complex and traditionally human tasks, we are seeing drastic changes to the current job market, and the future of traditional economic sectors. 

In the transportation industry, this translates into both hope and fear; hope for the wealth of efficiency, cost savings, and safety improvement that AI promises in the form of driverless trucks, and fear that the ever-changing job market that accompanies the AI movement may put the careers of thousands in the transportation industry in jeopardy. 

Though driverless trucks have a long road ahead before they are truly ready to dominate the market, the astounding leaps in technology that we are already witnessing dictate that this is a topic that needs to be thoroughly examined, before it causes more trouble than we can undo.

Origins of Driverless Truck Technology

The very first driverless trucks were demonstrated at Demo ’97 in the early 1990s, much to the amazement of onlookers along I-15 in San Diego. Though the prototypes from this collaboration of automotive companies, universities and industrial tech leaders never made it past their initial showing, engineers continued to look deeply into the concept of AI-controlled vehicles well into the 21st century.  As AI in domestic computer systems improved, so too did AI in vehicle specific applications.  In 2015, tech giant and leader in the AI revolution, Google, allowed its prototype, the 100% autonomous vehicle “Waymo,” onto the streets of Austin, Texas. This marked the first time in history that a fully autonomous vehicle was allowed into the mix of regular, human-controlled traffic. 

Since this unprecedented event, many more self-driving vehicles have made their way into the streets, and gradually bled into the transport industry. The excitement culminated in late 2016, when popular public transport company Uber made its first-ever delivery with an autonomous truck - 50,000 beers moved from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. The delivery went off without a hitch, and paved the way for many more companies to pilot self-driving trucks. These pilot projects are ongoing, and growing, as every moment passes.

Pros and Cons of Driverless Transport

Driverless trucks are not a current hot topic without reason; it is simple to see the numerous benefits they may potentially deliver. The most obvious benefit is the potential for drastic cost savings to fleet managers. With self-driving trucks, the transport industry can do away with its most significant cost – manual labor. As long as there are human drivers behind the wheel, those drivers need to be paid a fair hourly wage. Machines, however, do not need this same wage, and although they may have a higher initial cost, the lack of ongoing salary payments will quickly break even. AI will further increase cost savings when one considers that a computer never needs to sleep, eat, or take care of any typical survival needs.

In addition, people are imperfect, and while excellent drivers and strict safety protocols can drastically minimize the number of accidents that occur, human beings will never be infallible when it comes to driving incidents. In contrast, machines are extremely consistent, and a perfected driving AI will never grow tired or lose focus. So long as an AI-driven truck is capable of avoiding crashes once, it will always be capable of doing so. 

While the grand promises of AI-controlled transport vehicles are promising, they are also contingent on the perfection of the programmers behind them, and any number of small problems may turn these wonder trucks into logistical nightmares. For one, dialing AI code in to understand the thousands of possible scenarios that could lead to an accident could take a significant amount of trial and error. Not only will this mean unfortunate incidents throughout the learning process, but the ways in which a transport company, developer, and other invested parties will be held liable is unprecedented. 

Furthermore, the ripple effect that the introduction of AI transport will have on the economy cannot be fully accounted for. Not only will AI put tens of thousands of transportation professionals out of work, but businesses that cater to these individuals will also be hit heavily, including diners, gas stations, rest stops, motels and other similar services. Unlike transport, there is no AI equivalent that can make up for the loss of these services.

Current Tech Offerings in Driverless Transport

Driverless trucks have made waves in the news recently, and numerous companies have been making compelling cases for the idea that we are practically ready to make the full switch to AI drivers. Ever since Uber acquired driverless truck developer Otto for $680 million, It has since been pioneering numerous cross country stints with its driverless fleet. Thanks to a dedicated team of over 500 AI engineers, the tests have been flawless thus far. Additional testing is also being conducted in Europe where a convoy of self-driving trucks recently made a successful delivery to Port Rotterdam, further solidifying the argument that the world is ready for AI transportation.

The Future of Driverless Trucks, and How the Job Market Will Be Impacted

Driverless trucks are at the industry’s doorstep, and the majority of companies are ready to embrace them. Time and again, they have recently proven their promises of safety, efficiency and cost savings out on the roads, in real-world scenarios. However, the glaring question that rests on the minds of many American transport drivers is what their future will look like. Human drivers cost the transport industry approximately 75% more to employ than AI-controlled vehicles, making them a serious financial liability once AI proves its worth. 

However, transportation is one of the largest employers in the U.S. and Europe, with some 3.5 million drivers currently employed in the US. With a conservatively estimated 50% of jobs being handed off to AI in the next two decades, the effects on American lives, and the economic niche that was once filled by drivers and the services supporting them, will be devastating. Whether a compromise can be made, or is worth being made, between drivers and the industry, is a question that only the future will hold answers to, as the switch is gradually made. 

One thing is for certain, the next few decades will be as exciting and innovative as they are tumultuous for the industry, the drivers, and the people intertwined with these factions.  AI is an exciting, helpful, and nerve-wracking concept all at once. While its impacts on the industry can be carefully considered and guessed, the true impact of AI on the transport industry will be a mystery until its full scale implementation.