The future can be a tricky and subversive thing. For many people, it conjures up images of flying cars and jetpacks and vaguely humanoid robots scurrying about, handling all the tasks society has deemed too menial or perfunctory for humans to carry out themselves. It encompasses all sorts of elaborate speculations and flights of sci-fi fancy. The reality is far more intriguing – and perhaps more unsettling. The reality, indeed, is that the future has already arrived.
Recently, in the very earliest hours of the morning, a truck full of Budweiser trundled down the asphalt ribbon of Colorado’s Interstate 25. Like thousands of trucks before it, it was making the trip from the Budweiser brewery in Fort Collins to its distributor in Colorado springs. However, like no other trucks before it, it made the trip without a human at the wheel, completely controlled by a suite of sensors and software.
Of all the fields one might expect to lead the modern world into the future, trucking is surely not at the top of the list. And yet, in the span of a few short years, the specter of autonomous trucking has plunged the entire industry – and the vast, interconnected network of truck stops, greasy spoon diners, motels and other accommodations with which it shares an intimate, decades-old symbiotic relationship – into uncertainty. The trucking industry has long been seen as a bastion of good-paying jobs, requiring no post-secondary degrees and asking little more than hard work and reliability. Now, while the industry itself remains as vital as ever, many of those middle-class jobs may be in peril in the coming years and decades.
THE DRIVE TO GO DRIVERLESS
The appeal of a self-driving truck is obvious, both to drivers and to the trucking companies that employ them. For drivers, sitting behind the wheel takes a certain kind of grit and no small degree of perseverance. The nomadic nature of the work and the pressure to complete on-time, on-schedule deliveries can quickly wear on those who come unprepared for the job, and the unbroken hours of sleeplessly barreling down flat, featureless highways lit only by the pale glow of the occasional sodium lamp is enough to try the heartiest souls. Trucking companies, meanwhile, are keenly aware that nearly 90 percent of truck-related accidents involve human error in some capacity. Anything that holds the potential to mitigate that unpredictable human element is good for business.
The technology is still in its infancy, but the early returns are promising. Self-driving trucks have already proven capable of navigating the nation’s sprawling highway system with ease, and autonomous trucks and heavy machinery have been successfully deployed on a smaller scale by mining operations and other industries that don’t use public roads. The question is no longer if autonomous trucking will take over the transportation industry at large – the future is coming, and it’s not far away. The question now is what that future will look like when it arrives.
THE AGE OF AUTOMATION
At least in the short term, truck drivers ought not to be concerned about automation technology usurping their jobs. The goal, instead, is to make the job easier, safer and more efficient. For the average commercial truck driver, the overwhelming majority of their time behind the wheel is spent traveling on the Interstate system. Because highways generally have no cross traffic, no pedestrians, no complex intersections and few other hazards, the driving can quickly become monotonous. The endless repetition, the steady fixation on the highway’s sharp, straight lines and the relatively low demand for attention can create a hypnotic, almost hallucinatory state, and when combined with the trucking tradition of operating on little sleep, the potential for lapses in concentration – or, worse, nodding off behind the wheel – is clear and ever-present.
Fortunately, those same attributes make highway driving the ideal incubator for automated vehicles. With little need to navigate complex road systems or areas heavy with pedestrians and other human hazards, self-driving technology can free drivers to fill out and review their logs, complete necessary paperwork, grab a bite to eat and even catch up on some much-needed rest. Their skills are still likely to be needed while navigating cities and other areas away from the highway system, where there is less confidence that automation can replicate the intelligence and judgment of an experienced human driver.
THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF TRUCKING
While trucking jobs are unlikely to disappear in the near future – in fact, the industry currently has a shortage that is projected to continue growing in the next few years – the longer view is far less certain. The future of trucking, and in particular the future of the truck driver, may depend on the trucker’s ability to adapt. The ability to work an iPad or troubleshoot a malfunctioning computer system may become just as valuable as the ability to diagnose a collapsed oil filter or repair a blown fuse. A tech-savvy inclination may be more integral to the job in the future than the ability to stay awake for days on end.
For trucking companies and fleet owners, it will eventually become necessary to decide just how much trust should be placed in automation technology. Can self-driving trucks be truly autonomous, completing their routes from pick-up through to delivery with no onboard driver? While it’s possible, a more likely answer is partial autonomy. Trucks may be left to their own devices while driving on the Interstate, but an onboard driver may still prove necessary for tasks such as refueling, verifying the contents of each load and securing it properly, processing paperwork and ensuring that each load gets to its destination untouched. Additionally, truck drivers may perform a role similar to a modern harbor pilot, taking the wheel at the beginning and end of each trip in order to guide the truck through cities, towns and other challenging areas.
The world of autonomous commercial vehicles has not yet arrived, and there are plenty of hurdles still to be overcome. The potential for hacking remains a real concern, and a fully autonomous, driverless vehicle raises thorny legal and moral issues with few clear answers. A move to automate the transportation industry would surely be met with stiff resistance, and such a shift holds the potential to trigger widespread job losses that could send ripples through the wider economy. Nonetheless, the future of trucking looms just over the horizon, and autonomous trucking is an inescapable part of it.