Is autonomous trucking hauling a load of problems?
Friday, September 22, 2017
Faced with a massive industry-scale driver shortage, companies are nervously reviewing their options for over-road logistics in the near future. With an administration that slashed rail expansion and infrastructure investment only a few months into 2017, a rock-and-hard-place scenario is starting to emerge on the road between warehouse and customer.
With an FAA chilling effect threatening to ground the futuristic — if questionable in scalable theory — concept of drone delivery, can technology still assist with this inevitable bottleneck? Autonomous trucking advocates claim it can, but their solution still has plenty of room for pause.
It won't be an easy switch
Much like the issues holding drones back from wide-scale logistics adoption, there will be a "gray area" period of adoption as laws catch up to scenarios that would have seemed like science fiction a few decades ago. Any significant autonomous driving adoption will have to come on the heels of a partially-manned rig — think of a "just in case" human being riding shotgun with controls at the ready — for years before easing into full automation.
When that day arrives, safety concerns for other drivers must come before that almighty metric of speed, and striking a balance between the two won't be easy. There will also be accidents during the adjustment period, complete with all the bad press that comes with them.
There are social aspects to consider
From a company standpoint, the driver shortage is a problem that needs to be corrected. From a driver's perspective, however, technology is actively trying to replace their position, all over an issue in which they have zero control.
While their numbers aren't looking encouraging in projections, truck drivers who are currently employed with decades to go before retirement are nervously eyeing their future prospects, as well. Additionally, without human beings behind the wheel — and all the bathroom breaks, road food, rental showers and cheap hotels they require — entire industries in small towns could dry up entirely.
Manned trucking has been all the country has known since the dawn of logistics, and infrastructure has been built accordingly. To suddenly eliminate it would be devastating to these businesses. What's good for one business might end up being bad for a lot of other businesses along the way.
It could cause ethical issues, too
Transporting livestock is a skill, at it's core. A human driver is capable of navigating the road without causing undue stress to living cargo, but an efficiency-first automated truck might struggle with that nuance. A computer can't get a general sense that chickens are unhappy, or that pigs are terrified on curvy roads, nor can it see to their food, water or hygiene needs accurately on longer hauls.
Even if a cargo load isn't a living, breathing one, it's far easier to hack security measures than to fool a driver sleeping in his/her rig. Automated trucks are almost sure to be huge, moving targets for cargo theft, so the question of theft prevention is one for debate.
On the operational side, automated trucks will also be weighed down with the so-called trolley problem, a stark reminder of the difficulties that occur when bridging ethics and efficiency.
But they're still coming
Futuristic tech thought leader Elon Musk has taken enough time away from world-changing builds like the passenger-toting HyperLoop to get autonomous trucks on the proverbial road. While his Tesla autonomous truck was originally slated to roll out this month, it has been pushed back a bit to late October.
Musk spared no enthusiasm for the new vehicle, capable of traveling in autonomous "platoon" packs behind a lead truck, calling the prototype "unreal" and "a beast." While his other endeavors — Tesla cars, Space X and others — have had some stumbles, Tesla trucks may be the breakthrough that makes him a true household name.
Autonomous trucking may be the solution that the industry's been waiting for, but that doesn't mean it won't cause headaches along the way. Adoption of this emerging technology will need to proceed cautiously to avoid disturbing the culture and infrastructure built around its manned counterparts.
It's entirely possible that tomorrow's roads will only be populated by pleasure cruisers, but make no mistake: autonomous trucking still has a long journey on the road ahead.
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