driverless cars

Trucks are where it’s at

This piece at CityLab has the best, most astute headline I’ve seen in a while:

“We Should Really Be Talking About Self-Driving Trucks”

That’s absolutely correct.

In terms of driverless vehicles, it seems reasonably obvious that the first and best application of the technology is likely to be in the transport industry, not the consumer car market.  Indeed, this sort of driverless vehicle is already doing the work in places like Amazon’s “fulfilment centres” (that is, honestly, what they call their storage factories.)

So if you are going to want to sneak driverless vehicles onto the road, transport is where you would start.

As the CityLab piece notes:

With so much attention being paid to the development of self-driving cars (including whether Apple is getting into the game), little notice has been given to the prospect of self-driving leviathans of the highway—the long-haul truck. Industry watchers and tech fanboys are salivating at the potential of making their commutes or jumping between meetings in autonomous people-movers, yet, in terms of near-term impact, the self-driving semi could make a bigger splash given the trucking industry contributed $642 billion to the U.S. economy last year.

By bigger splash, they obviously mean, disruption to the current transport industry and the people who work there, specifically truck drivers:

Based on the most recent data (pdf) from the Department of Transportation, there were an estimated 10.7 million trucks operating in the U.S. in 2013, many of which belong to the more than 33,000 commercial fleets on American highways. While enticing individual owners of private vehicles to put self-driving cars in their driveways could take decades and only change one car at a time, truck fleet owners could replace potentially dozens of vehicles in a single stroke, particularly considering the potential of economic incentives and regulatory mandates. Transport experts promise economic benefits in the form of reduced fuel consumption and emissions through more efficient routing and smoother driving, longer routes than people can safely drive, and less space taken from private drivers on the road. Trucks also have to deal with fewer stop-start, frequent turn scenarios, and fewer road obstacles, meaning a possible less daunting learning curve for self-driving systems.

And again, the thing to note is that we are talking sooner rather than later.

This fact was underlined by the fact that South Australia become the first place in the nation to flag new legislation to allow the use of driverless vehicles on their roads.

The CityLab article also, quite rightly, outlines the way in which transport employment may change, rather than simply disappear, as the driverless vehicles are rolled out:

Yet truckers who are good at their jobs might actually see a move to the back office—of the truck itself. In this scenario, self-driving trucks would remain staffed with something more akin to a human first officer, someone sitting behind the cab in a vehicle, perhaps part of a platoon of cooperating autonomous trucks, managing routing, interacting with customers face-to-face and taking over the wheel in situations that require more sophisticated action—in effect herding a 10-ton “just smart enough” beast of burden. The dispatcher, not the driver, really may be the one under threat.As is usual here, I don’t want to suggest that changes such as these are likely to be either all good or all bad.  The true test of that will likely have less to do with the technology per se, than with the governance parameters — at the firm and the government level — that are put in place.

As is usual here, I don’t want to suggest that changes such as these are likely to be either all good or all bad.  The true test of that will likely have less to do with the technology per se, than with the governance parameters — at the firm and the government level — that are put in place.

So I don’t think there is much point in trying to stop the development or deployment of the technology. But there is an absolutely vital need for us to discuss and respond to the ramifications of it.


And while we’re on the subject…..

Remember that early Spielberg film, Duel? A guy on a cross-country drive is pursued and harassed by what appears to a driverless truck.

Yep, that.

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