The future is here! Flying cars aren’t on the horizon yet, but they will be self-driving, and that could soon include big rigs. As Google, Tesla, and international companies test and release their newest self-driving cars, the U.S. Department of Transportation has announced a set of rules and guidelines for auto and tech companies that require specific reporting on the testing and safety of their technologies to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The federal government hopes that state legislators, including those in Michigan, California, Nevada, and Florida—states that are already offering driverless car licenses—will follow federal guidelines.
Not wanting to be left behind in the soon-to-be stone age of modern vehicles, the trucking industry now wants to be represented in future legislation and technology. After all, a driverless truck could revolutionize the industry, allowing for easier and more efficient long-distance drives in which a tired driver only has to commandeer for pick-ups and deliveries.
But what else could a driverless fleet mean in a multi billion-dollar industry?
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. The trucking industry spends a substantial amount on driver compensation, and driverless cars could render thousands of jobs unnecessary. Though the industry doesn’t see large layoffs necessary or imminent, the possibility is worrisome for unions and many truck drivers who make a middle class income without a college degree.
So begins the “people problem.” The technology is evolving rapidly, but humans will be the biggest obstacle. In their book, Driverless: Intelligent Cars and the Road Ahead, Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman explain this problem, “When new software programs are introduced into an organization, the biggest barrier to adoption is usually not the performance of the technology; it’s the fact that the organization’s culture and workflow are built on previous software products, and changing people’s work habits stirs up resistance… some people lose turf, others are forced to rethink how they get things done, and so on.”
The people problem extends to the act of driving as well, especially in regards to driving etiquette. How do we program technology to account for unwritten rules of the road, including nonverbal communication? According to Lipson and Kurman, technology will have to include visual and facial recognition to make up for the very human decisions that go into driving.
It’s not all worry and headache, however. Better technology can be a great thing, and in the trucking industry, a vehicle that can’t get tired or make poor decisions on the road is not only safer, but more fuel-efficient and productive. Forbes has reported a shortage of young, skilled drivers in the industry, bringing a very real need for driverless trucks. Forbes also notes that driverless trucks can cut emissions and maintenance while lowering fuel costs by 4-7%. Once the technology is perfected, it will save thousands of lives from fatal accidents and keep money in fleet owners’ pockets.
Luckily, driverless technology is easier to produce that other autonomous technologies. If roads are clearly marked, software only needs to be programmed to do a finite number of movements and controls. A car does not have arms or complex movements other than changing direction, changing lanes, and accelerating/braking. We will see the technology become more widespread in the next decade. So are fleets ready? The industry seems to think so.