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Self-driving trucks: Are we prepared for their arrival?

The future is a funny thing. It’s the stuff of magic and science fiction until, well, it’s not the future anymore. It’s the present and staring you right in the face. Then, it becomes normal all over again. There were plenty of such leaps in the 20th century: the gramophone, telephone, television, internet. The 21st century has already experienced a couple of seismic technological leaps in the form of smartphones and the democratic power of social media.

When Elon Musk rolled out Tesla’s fully electric semi truck two weeks ago, people have been clamoring to know more. How much is hype, and how much is grounded in reality? Tesla’s Semi can supposedly go 500 miles between charges, hauling 80,000 pounds along the way, although that is already being disputed. And it can drive itself—on highways, anyway. The truck comes with Enhanced Autopilot, the second generation of Tesla’s semiautonomous technology, equipped with automatic braking, lane keeping, and lane departure warnings. “Every truck we sell has Autopilot as standard, a massive increase in safety,” Musk said of the Semi, which goes into production in 2019.

What’s next in line to become the new normal? Blockchain technology? Drones delivering anything under five pounds within hours or minutes? Maybe. Just as likely, and maybe even sooner: self-driving cars and, especially, self-driving trucks.

If you’re late to the party, autonomous trucks use sensors and a navigation system to operate. They brake independently and use radars and cameras to navigate around vehicles. There are actually two models: the completely driverless and the self-driving (with a non-driving occupant).

How real is this possible future? Steve Cox, president and COO of Steam Logistics, says, “I think it’s coming, and I think the automation of all vehicles will save 50,000 lives a year in the U.S. There is going to have to be a lot of adjustment by companies or they will fall by the wayside. Will it happen in our lifetimes? It just might.”

While 50,000 lives may be an exaggeration, it certainly will save lives (maybe more like 4,000 a year), and change lives. The real question is when—and how.

According to David Alexand, an analyst with Navigant Research, it might be happening in the next five to 10 years. Although technical problems remain, according to an article in MIT Technology Review, self-driving trucks will be safer and less costly, advocates argue. Greg Murphy, who works for Otto as a safety backup driver during testing and has been a truck driver for 40 years, says the trucks often drive better than he can.

Long-haul big rigs spend most of their time on highways, which tend to be the easiest roads to navigate without human intervention, according to Natalie Kitroeff in a recent Los Angeles Times article. For this reason, as well as the industry investment and need for logistics solutions, trucking will likely be the first type of driving to be fully automated. So, saving human lives, increasing shipping efficiency, and solving the terrible turnover problem in the trucking industry is all a good thing, right?

As with any technological leap, there are jobs destroyed and jobs created. Some argue that the trucking job is among the most common job in the United States, and one of the very few remaining careers that offer a middle-class wage without a college degree. On the other hand, others argue there is no driver shortage, it’s a simple case of supply and demand and the curve will correct itself.

The current decade has seen huge advances in machine learning. The increasing availability of big data and enhanced computation power began providing computers with unprecedented capabilities such as the ability to accurately recognize images. As David Rotman documents in “The Relentless Pace of Automation” for MIT Review, big changes are coming one way or another, and trucking is only one of the many industries that will see great change through artificial intelligence (AI).

Greater deployment of AI and automation could boost economic growth by creating new types of jobs and improving efficiency in many businesses. But it also points to the negative impacts of short-term increases in income inequality. These issues are complex and have more to do with America’s need to anticipate and provide training infrastructure ahead of time, something America has historically been poor at.

Others don’t believe major changes are happening quite as soon as we may think. Brent Goldberg, CFO of LyncAmerica, a supply and logistics company, sees too many obstacles. He notes, “The most prevalent design changes are related to the interior of the truck and driver comfort. Engineers at the five largest truck manufacturers are spending all their time and many millions of dollars on driver comfort, not automation. Trains still are not automated and they have the straightest, most uncluttered roadways in America. There are countless issues to address with automating trucks. Breakdowns, tire issues, crashes, cars on the roadway, traffic, etc.”

The march to the future continues. When will it become the new normal? Perhaps the most important question we can ask is: How prepared will we be when it arrives?

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Chad Prevost

Chad is radio host and broadcast media specialist for FreightWaves.