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?

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