You Wanna See a Great Big Driverless Convoy?

When I was a kid, my family took a lot of road trips. During long-distance, boring rides, my siblings and I enjoyed pumping our fists in the air when we passed semi-trailer trucks. The drivers would thrill us with a blast of their horns. Sometimes the trucks traveled like a wagon train. Three or more trucks, one right after the other. For us, it became a contest to see how many in the convoy would honk. You wanna see a great big driverless convoy? Self Driving Trucks are on the road

Three white semi-trailer trucks coming down the road toward you--in the future it may be a great big driverless convoy

Long-Haul Trucks

According to World Economic Forum, trucking is an $800 billion industry in the US. Trucks carry nearly everything we buy. That’s a lot of driving hours.

John Hopkins estimates there are 3.5 million long-haul drivers in the U.S. The article discusses the huge physical and psychological toll of long-distance truck driving. Life-altering wrecks are only a part of the dangers. The job isn’t for everyone.

And truck drivers, like everyone else, are aging. And few young people choose that occupation. Since at least 2017, there has been a shortage of truck drivers. The shortage and the high cost of vehicles, maintenance, fuel, and drivers, leave companies struggling to meet the demand.

Some see autonomous trucks as filling the need. Others see autonomous trucks as an economical and safety next step.

The History of Self-Driving Trucks

In June 1995, Popular Science Magazine reported that self-driving trucks were being developed for combat convoys.

A Japanese company, Komatsu, tested a fleet of autonomous trucks  in Chile in 2005.

Lockheed Martin, with funding from the U.S. Army, developed an autonomous truck system. They installed that system on more than nine types of vehicles and has completed more than 55,000 hours in 2014. Their system uses a human driver in the lead truck with several trucks following autonomously. A convoy.

Across the world, companies developed self-driving or autonomous trucks.

Freightliner received the first-ever license to test a semi-autonomous truck on the highway a few years ago. In 2017 a truck became the first autonomous vehicle cleared for regular use on an American highway—albeit at slow speeds.

Starsky Robotics was the first company to publicly test driverless trucks. In February 2018, they completed a 7-mile fully driverless trip in Florida.

In December 2019, a self-driving truck completed a 2,800 mile, incident-free trip from Tulare, CA,  to Quakertown, PA.

The Pros

Higher costs for cargo, wages, fuel, and new regulations mean higher consumer costs. Autonomous trucks would mean consistent and continuous driving. And that would reduce costs for companies and consumers.

Driverless trucks mean that driver fatigue won’t be an issue. And that means safer roads.

The new technology will create more jobs than it destroys.

The Cons

Fully self-driving trucks from dock-to-dock won’t become reality for a long time. City driving fraught with traffic and pedestrians and construction requires more decision-making than highway driving. The technicalities aren’t that sophisticated yet.

Thousands of truck drivers will lose their jobs.

Today and Tomorrow

Only time will tell if driverless trucking will save money and increase safety. Uber, which has been using self-driving trucks for some time, has suggested we create trucking hubs outside of each city. This is where the autonomous trucks will gain a human driver to navigate from the hub through the city to the destination dock.

Inevitably there will be a wreck involving a self-driving truck. It will be the human driver’s fault. And the fallout after that—lawsuits and public outrage and fear—may adversely affect the future of autonomous trucking.

And what happens as the truck and the driverless system ages? The history of glitch-filled computer system updates makes me shudder to think of that happening in a driverless system.

You Wanna See a Great Big Convoy?

Maybe you will. For a while, there will be drivers. But in the future you might see a driverless convoy on major highways. But C.W. McCoy’s song, Convoy, released in 1975 won’t be as much fun. Take a listen.

If you wanna see a great big convoy, I can recommend driving the long stretches of highway in western Kansas. Have your kids (or you can) pump your fist up and down as you pass a semi-trailer truck. I’ll bet the driver will honk. And I gotta tell you, unless they give those computers the commands to blast their horns at kids who wave as they pass… the future will miss something.

Do you wanna see a great big driverless convoy on the road?

Your Out-of-This-World Vacation

It’s possible that in 2025 there will be a hotel orbiting the Earth. You can plan your out-of-this-world vacation today, but would you? Would you be willing to be one of the first to stay in the orbiting hotel?

Image of the hatch of the International Space station hovering over the blue and white Earth. Would you plan your out-of-this-world vacation for views like that?

Who Will Build it?

In 2018 National Geographic published an article about, Orion Span, a Houston-based space tech startup. Orion announced plans to launch the first-ever luxury space hotel into Earth’s orbit.

The Gateway Foundation, a private company is developing plans for the orbiting Von Braun Rotating Space Station.

Axiom Space is another company planning a space hotel. Their plan includes building their first module or two attached to the International Space Station. When ISS retires in 2025, the Axiom modules will separate from ISS to become independent orbiting objects. 

Who Will Stay There?

The Von Braun station will accommodate both scientific research and visiting tourists. Designed to be the largest human-made structure in space, it will house up to 450 people.

Orion says intend to offer short- and long-term leases to governments, to lease for government and private manufacturing and research, and up to four space tourists can visit for twelve days.

Axiom offers trips to space tourists who want to take part in experiments on ISS. They will help you decide on an experiment.

Special Training

According to Orion’s website, they’ve streamlined the pre-launch training down to a three-month period. The final training would occur in orbit. 

Axiom’s website says to expect several weeks of training “just like the astronauts” do for NASA.

When Can You Go?

The Gateway Foundation intends for the main structures and basic functions to be operational in 2025. They will complete it in 2027. 

Orion expects to host their first guest on the Aurora Station in 2022.

Axiom aims to launch their first two modules to ISS in 2022. 

What Will the Station Look Like? 

See the video projection of what the Aurora will look like on CNN.

Gateway’s Von Braun Station will look like this:

Axiom’s vision looks like this:

The Risk of Going to Space

The first and most obvious one is a catastrophic failure during launch, during your stay, or during your trip back to Earth. 

In space there’s radiation, confined spaces, isolation.

The distance to the Earth is also a hazard. First aid is available and so are more advanced medical treatments but a serious illness or injury may pose extra hazards.  

Health Risks

“Without gravity working on your body, your bones lose minerals, with density dropping at over 1% per month. By comparison, the rate of bone loss for elderly men and women on Earth is from 1% to 1.5% per year.” Even after returning to Earth, you could be at greater risk of osteoporosis-related fractures later in life. 

The fluids in your body will shift upwards to your head. This will give you a “moon face” and nasal congestion. But it can also put pressure on your eyes causing vision problems. They have developed compression cuffs for your thighs to help keep body fluids in your lower extremities.

Some people experience balance disorders, nausea, and  sleep disturbances.

Microbes can change characteristics in space, and microorganisms that naturally live on your body transfer more easily from person to person in closed habitats like a space station. Being in space elevates your stress hormone levels and alters your immune system. That could lead to increased susceptibility to allergies or other illnesses, and disease.

There are many areas of change that seem to affect each individual differently. Taste is one of those changes. Some people think food tastes bland in space. Strong tastes aren’t as enjoyable as on Earth to others. And some aren’t bothered at all.

For a discussion of how long-term space travel affects the human body, see NASA’s Human Body in Space article.

Or read about former astronaut, Scott Kelly, who spent a year in space and is dealing with the changes his body endured.

Space tourists should know the changes and how to counteract them. But each individual will have to decide what level of risk they will tolerate. 

Would You Plan Your Out-of-this-world Vacation?

When I first wrote The Repairmen, I did not include hotels in orbit. I will be rewriting that story in the near future. The rewrite will include space stations and hotels and who knows what else. Unfortunately, that will be as close as I get to taking an out-of-this-world vacation. Would I plan one if I met the criteria? You betcha!

Assuming you had the spare cash and fit the health profile, would you plan your out-of-this-world vacation? Can you imagine what it would be like to play zero-g basketball or ping pong? Is there any more exotic location for a first or second honeymoon? So tell me readers, would you go?