It is early morning when a truck driver pulls his rig into a freight yard in the hope of quickly unloading and getting on to the next job. He starts pulling the bungees on his tarps and loosening his ratchet straps, waiting for someone to come sign off on this load and hoping today will not be one of those days he spends more time waiting than driving. His thoughts eventually wander to the possibility of autonomous trucks eliminating his job one day.
How serious is the threat of autonomy to America’s truckers? To listen to the news media, you would expect self-driving trucks to take to the roads by the millions any day now. To be fair, there are a lot of positives pointing to a future of autonomy in some form. But for every positive sign, there are numerous negatives. Truth be told, we are a lot farther away from trucking autonomy than most people believe.
If you are a middle-aged truck driver right now, autonomy may not be the norm in your lifetime. If and when it does come, it is not likely to be complete. Just think about commercial air transport. We have had autopilot technology in place for two generations. So why aren’t commercial airliners completely autonomous at this point? Because too many variables make it too dangerous. Similar variables exist in ground transport too but in larger volumes.
Constraints of Traffic
The biggest hindrance to complete autonomy are the natural constraints of traffic. There are currently more than 250 million cars and trucks traversing U.S. roads on any given day. Each of those vehicles is manned by a human operator prone to making all sorts of mistakes. In order for complete autonomy to work flawlessly, all those vehicles have to be simultaneously replaced so as to eliminate the human factor. It’s never going to happen.
Along those same lines, our current road system is not a closed loop system. Making cars and trucks autonomous is not as simple as putting them on a test track and running them in a straight line where there is no variation. The only way to go 100% autonomous and keep it relatively safe is to rebuild our entire infrastructure from the ground up with a system of electronic and computerized lanes that keep vehicles in line. That is not going to happen either. We do not even have enough money to maintain current infrastructure. How are we going to pay to completely rebuild it from scratch?
Cargo Control Issues
Not all the hindrances to autonomous trucks are related to safety or traffic. Some have to do with how trucks are loaded and how cargo is controlled. Take the example of the flatbed trucker this post opened with. An autonomous truck cannot inspect its own load and re-secure cargo during a journey. Loading and unloading robots would be limited in the ways they could deploy truck tarps, edge protectors, blocks, and so on.
According to Mytee Products, an Ohio company specializing in cargo control equipment and supplies for truckers, cargo control is largely the truck driver’s responsibility. Securing and protecting cargo is as much an art form as it is a science. Robots could perform some of the basic functions of loading and securing cargo, but nothing can replace the human brain and human experience.
Autonomy will eventually come to trucking to a certain degree. But it is highly unlikely it will completely overtake the industry and eliminate the majority of America’s trucking jobs. Just remember, pilots are still flying planes decades after computerized autopilot systems were invented.