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Autonomous Semi Trucks Should Be Our First Step Toward Driverless Vehicles

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author photo by Will Kinton April 2018

Driverless cars are just around the corner, but autonomous semi-trucks should really be our first step for a variety of reasons. I know driverless trucks aren't as flashy as cool autonomous cars that can take you wherever you want to go, but they do make a lot more sense as a place to start than with passenger cars like we've seen so far. Some autonomous trucks have started making deliveries between Texas and California, but only a few companies seem to be making a serious effort to introduce autonomy into the trucking world.

First off, the human element is the most limiting factor when it comes to long-haul trucking. Truck drivers need to eat, spend time with families and, most importantly, sleep. The driver's legal requirements to rest or sleep means there are many hours where a load spends time sitting still rather than moving onward towards its destination. By eliminating the need for the driver to get sleep, deliveries can become much more efficient. Trucks could make significantly more deliveries, which would definitely help the bottom line.

Secondly, human error when applied to trucking is pretty devastating. Truck accidents can be downright brutal, and eliminating the capacity for driver error would mean that our roads would be safer. I saw a video the other day of a huge pileup in an Iowa snow storm, and I was amazed at how many trucks drove into the pileup at full highway speeds, even though the visibility was severely reduced and the roads were slippery. It was asinine, and people were seriously hurt because of the human factor.

Additionally, autonomous semi-trucks could hang out in the right lane at a steady 55 miles per hour, which would be much more predictable for other drivers on the road. This also means the human emotion of impatience would be eliminated, which means that trucks would not pass each other in questionable circumstances with a tiny speed differential. I've seen this exact behavior from truckers cause standstill traffic jams on highways like I-81, which becomes dangerous for everyone -- not to mention incredibly frustrating.

Furthermore, it's much easier to make an autonomous truck that can drive itself on a highway. It generally doesn't have to look for pedestrians or deal with the complexities of stop signs and traffic lights: The truck can just sit in its lane, maintaining a safe distance behind the car in front of it.

The biggest roadblock to autonomous trucking is, naturally, the truckers themselves. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S., with an additional 5.2 million people employed in the trucking industry. They're afraid autonomous semi-trucks would essentially eliminate their jobs, and they're right. The traditional trucker job would probably no longer exist at some point.

But someone will still need to be responsible for the truck while it's on the road, at least for the interim. Instead of today's trucker, the future trucker's job would probably look more like that of an airline pilot. Airliners essentially operate on autopilot in between takeoff and landing (and many airline autopilots land the plane as well), but the pilot is still responsible for controlling the aircraft while taxiing and during takeoff. Likewise, a trucker put into an autonomous truck could be there for the "taxi, takeoff and landing" parts of the job, like driving on non-interstate roads, backing up to loading bays and ensuring the truck is fueled. On the interstate, the truck could essentially run itself, with very little input from the driver.

Besides, even if truck driver jobs are eliminated by autonomous trucks, it wouldn't have as great of an impact as people think -- the trucking industry has struggled to attract new people to the profession for the past 15 years, and is now facing a whopping 900,000 driver deficit. As for the other 5.2 million people in the industry, there will still be a need for them to keep the trucks on the road. Mechanics, loaders and the like will be still be necessary, regardless of who's driving the trucks.

So bring on the autonomous trucks. I'm ready for them, and I think America is ready for them as well.

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Autonomous Semi Trucks Should Be Our First Step Toward Driverless Vehicles - Autotrader