Delivery drones and 3D printers will not eliminate the need for millions of trucks to move goods around the country. But self-driving trucks may someday eliminate human truck drivers.

The Texas Legislature has laid the groundwork for autonomous trucking, reasoning that it makes sense to establish regulations for what appears to be the future of the trucking industry. However, many independent owner-operators and federal trucking regulators are skeptical that self-driving 18-wheelers can safely replace licensed human truck drivers. At least not yet.

Should we really be scared of robot trucks? Maybe.

There is mounting evidence that computers can drive better than a live person. They don’t drink or fall asleep at the wheel. They don’t get distracted or run red lights. They can “see” in several directions and react faster.

But there are still bugs in the system and questions about what would really happen if trucks drove themselves from point A to point B. Aside from the issue of putting truckers out of work, here are four public safety concerns:

  • Emergency decisions – Modern sensors can detect dangers and react quicker than humans, such as automatic braking when a car ahead suddenly decelerates. But will a robot truck make the best decision in a complex situation? What if avoiding one crash causes another collision or a chain reaction of accidents? Is a computer better equipped than a veteran trucker to handle a tire blowout or fishtailing trailer?
  • Technology flaws – In these early days of autonomous vehicles, a self-driving Uber car failed to recognize an adjacent vehicle at an intersection, leading to the death of the human “copilot.” What if the electronics glitch or don’t work as intended because of flawed software?
  • Programmed response – Could corporations alter the truck’s decision-making “conscience?”  At an industry forum, truck driver Bryan Spoon wondered what the self-driving truck would do in the hypothetical scenario in which it would have to crash into a brick wall to avoid hitting pedestrians. “What choice does our automated vehicle make? Destroy itself or (plow into) a group of schoolchildren in a crosswalk?” Could trucks be programmed to “play the odds” or first protect the cargo?
  • Electronic hijacking – Members of the industry have demonstrated that tractor-trailers are vulnerable to tampering and interference. Many aspects of trucks already operate wirelessly, from GPS tracking to engine controls. In one experiment, experts were able to remotely manipulate an 18-wheeler’s steering, acceleration, brakes and dashboard electronics. A 40-ton tractor-trailer would be a scary weapon in the hands of terrorists.

In the near future, we will likely see “technology-assisted” trucks before completely autonomous unmanned trucks. Similar to the autopilot on a jetliner, the human trucker might have manual control over some aspects of the trip while the computer takes over for the long and tedious portions. The trucker would still be in the driver’s seat and be able to quickly resume the controls.

What do you think about self-driving trucks?

Will human operators one day be phased out completely? Can robot trucks eliminate the thousands of annual fatalities from truck accidents in the U.S.? Are you fearful or hopeful about this trend toward autonomous trucking?

Source:  Overdrive Magazine