Commercial Trucks and Ships
As drivers know from spending any time on America’s interstates, our county depends heavily on the commercial trucking industry. These trucks are vital to transporting goods to their intended destination, and trucking companies currently employ around 3.5 million Americans as commercial truck drivers. Self-driving technology has the potential to drastically change this industry, resulting in more efficient trucks but a significant loss of jobs.
Europe is already making great strides toward implementing autonomous technology in the trucking industry. In early 2016, more than a dozen semi-automated trucks traveled across several European countries. These automated trucks employed a practice known as “truck platooning,” which means that two or three trucks “autonomously drive in convoy and are connected via wireless with the leading truck determining route and speed.” Developers working on this technology point out that the use of self-driving trucks will lead to higher efficiency, less fuel use (and thus cleaner transport), and safer roadways. Because most accidents are caused by human error, these self-driving trucks promise to reduce collisions, thereby keeping other drivers on the road safer. Self-driving trucks using this platoon method could also lead to less congested roadways, as they drive and brake at consistent speeds and can move closely together, thus easing congestion on roads, and also decrease fuel usage (because of the drafting effect).
Based on this successful experiment, a similar automated commercial truck endeavor is planned for the United Kingdom later in 2016. Ten truck platoons will drive themselves on British roads, likely focusing on some secluded stretches of roadway.
While the trucks in both of these experiments still required a driver to be on board, the industry is working to move towards true driverless technology. When drivers are no longer required and trucks can operate in full autonomous mode, commercial trucks will be able to move goods without stopping for food or rest breaks, only stopping to refuel and for mechanical issues.
To read more about the recent convoy that traveled across Europe, read https://www.yahoo.com/news/self-drive-trucks-future-europes-busy-highways-153524756.html.
To read about the upcoming experiment in Britain, go to http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/04/10/britain-is-head-and-shoulders-above-rivals-in-putting-driverless/.
In the United States, a company called Otto, which was launched in 2016 and purchased by Uber in the summer of 2016, is working toward self-driving commercial trucks. Otto hopes to begin testing their technology in Northern California during 2016, and also plans to partner with truck owners for testing. You can read more about Otto at https://www.trucks.com/2016/08/16/otto-autonomous-truck-tech/.
In October 2016, Otto made it's first delivery via self-driving commercial truck. The truck drove 120 miles from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs to deliver 1,744 cans of Budweiser. Though the driver intervened during the city-driving portion of the trip and while backing the truck up to the loading doc, he was not in the driver's seat during any of the highway driving. The truck averaged 55 miles per hour and was followed by a state patrol car. Otto has also tested a truck on parts of a public highway in Ohio.
It is easy to see the impact of driverless trucks on the truck drivers, who make up almost 1% of the nation’s workforce. The ripple effect of the loss of truck driving jobs impacts truck stops, hotels, food retailers, and beyond. Think of the impact on companies like Pilot Oil if hundreds of truck drivers are not there every day to buy coffee, food, and merchandise. The trucks will still be there (they have to purchase fuel someplace) so fuel sales will remain but all of the related sales will disappear.
From a technical standpoint, the liability issues concerning autonomous trucks are no different than they are concerning self-driving cars, but practically speaking, the issue will give rise to extensive and serious debate because these vehicles can weigh 80,000 pounds and hit speeds of 100 miles per hour. The hope is that this new technology will reduce wrecks, deaths, and injuries, but the fear is that technology will fail and the vehicles will go out of control, wreaking havoc on our communities.
One must also wonder whether driverless vehicles will ever be allowed on roadways other than the interstate highway system. Despite the high speed of travel contemplated on such highways, there are no stops signs, no tight corners, no pedestrians, etc. One can foresee a day when driverless tractor-trailers are permitted on interstate highways but a driver will be required for non-interstate highway travel until the public has more faith in the technology.
Like trucks, ships could be made much more efficient if they operated autonomously. Cargo ships currently have to make room for large staffs. If ships could operate autonomously, space currently used for crew could be devoted to cargo, and ships could operate around the clock, saving both time and fuel. For an article about the potential future of autonomous shipping, go here.