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The Light Load: Whistling past the autonomous truck yard

Something (if not someone) kinda scary this way comes in that driverless semi

Anybody in there? (Photo: Shutterstock)

Sometime before “The Fast and the Furious” hits peak geriatric and starts making the rounds on TCM alongside the original “Fast/Fur,” autonomous trucks will become as ubiquitous as “Free ice water at Wall Drug” signs on I-90.

But I predict that prior to those unmanned semis searing into our consciousness like hot dogs and boiled eggs in clabbered bouillon, motorists will for a time feel an eerie bestartlement when they pass a sleek rig and look up to discover no one is behind the wheel. (And no, “bestartlement” isn’t a word, but it’s perfectly cromulent to make things up.)

Not that driverless trucks and cars are the stuff of bad to mediocre horror movies linked with annoying frequency to Stephen King, but there’s something unsettling about the thought of tooling my elderly Toyota past a future Kenworth that’s missing its ballcap-garnished tenant. Intentionally or not, truckers have become to us lesser mortals the Linus blankets of the road — a symbol of stability even when their Jake Brakes make grown men (i.e., me) shriek à la some ill-fated “Press Your Luck” contestant fixin’ to face-plant on a third Whammy.

Now don’t get us wrong, yeah, Shania and I think you’re all right, autonomous truck makers. You’ll fix those hours-of-service meddlers’ little red chassis but good. And you just may clean the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse’s house in the process.

But who, if not DNA-based drivers, will help the authorities head off fugitives from justice the way these folks and these ones and this guy and even these European trucking brethren or sistren did? I’d wager a prune cobbler and half my gaggle of gnus — wildebeest if you must — that it won’t be the monotonously safe driverless trucks destined one day to tiptoe meekly among us.

Whatever they’re supposed to do at the sound of a trooper’s siren, something tells me it will not involve collaboratively whipping about tons of freight and metal with the surefootedness of a mountain goat on “Dancing With the Wildlife.” That means no stepping in to stop some random miscreant who’s in a lethal rush because he forgot to DVR the French-fried version of “This Woman Is Dangerous” before it goes off tubi. Oh là là!

No, I imagine that in such circumstances the autonomous semi will politely yield, coming to a gentle stop on the shoulder with an audible, preprogrammed, “Theeere ya go. That’s a good truck.” Much the way George Carlin viewed baseball, the placid objective will be to arrive safe at home, not to make those big wheels burn and assuredly not to form an 80,000-pound barricade against some would-be hot rodder in a Chevette or a Fury who’s miffed because he’s not in a Chevelle or a Ferrari. I guess that’s all proper and right and innocuous, but it’ll be a different world. If not quite “A Different World.”

On the plus side, sort of, if an intact deer carcass should happen to lie in the nearby weeds when a driverless truck courteously pulls to the side of the interstate, there’ll be no need to reassure ride-along Timmy or Tonya that animals just like to sleep close to the road. That’s because there’ll be no Timmy or Tonya riding along, savoring the view from high above us four-wheeled riffraff and mourning Bambi’s demise. The cargo will be strictly that: cargo.

Anyway, before I miss my exit off the Maudlin Expressway, I gather from never-maudlin FreightWaves trucking guru Alan Adler that a feisty Swedish concern answering to the handle Einride is developing decabinated trucks for the highway. (For more on “decabinated,” see note on “bestartlement” above.) Since we’re going the autonomous route, cab-free is just as well if you ask me. A semi with no cab to not see a trucker in to begin with has less plasma-curdling potential than one that practically sports a blinking red vacancy sign.

I suppose the alternative is a cab with darkened windows, letting us at least pretend somebody’s in there.




On second thought, ixnay the dark windows. They sound creepier than Formula 409. I mean “Phantom 309.” I mean spraying yourself in the eyes with Formula 409 while listening to “Phantom 309.”

Related reading:

The Light Load: Marla meets the watermelon truck

The Light Load: Confessions of a transportation tenderfoot

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Steve Barrett.

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Steve Barrett

A copy editor for FreightWaves since 2019, Steve Barrett has worked as an editor and/or reporter for The Associated Press as well as newspapers in Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Nebraska. He also served as a senior managing editor for a medical marketing company, collaborating with some of the nation's most respected health care organizations and specialists in major markets in New York and Pennsylvania. He earned a Master of Mass Communications degree from the University of Georgia and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Spanish from the University of South Dakota.