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STAYING BEHIND THE WHEEL
The Future of Trucking
In the spirit of fall and reflection, I wanted to spend some time ruminating on the future of trucking. Where is the industry heading? Some predict utopian visions of fast, efficient self-driving vehicles, while others rightfully ask what will happen to the drivers. But what both sides assume is that automated semitrucks are taking over and doing it soon. Frankly, I’m not convinced. Now I have to admit, the same week I sat down to draft this article, the news came out that UPS has already been using self-driving trucks to make cargo deliveries in Arizona. The irony is not lost on me. But having read the reports, I was pleased to see I didn’t have to change any of my original contentions. If anything, this UPS pilot program strengthens my belief that the world isn’t ready for artificial drivers to take the wheel. The thing is, people don’t trust machines. Anyone who’s ever tried to get “Siri” or “Alexa” to understand their commands can testify we’re a long way from machines that can think and respond like a human. While a glorified speaker accidentally adding “cannons” instead of “carrots” to your shopping list can make for a laugh, no one wants to see what an automated 18-wheeler “misunderstanding” looks like. UPS keeping their real-world test runs quiet for so long speaks volumes. Even though they swear by the safety of the technology, they knew the public wouldn’t trust these vehicles taking the road for the first time. Beyond the trust factor, self-driving vehicles create legal questions unlike any we’ve seen before. If one is caught in a crash, who’s at fault? Was it the company that wrote the software? The manufacturer that installed the hardware? A technician who missed a vital step during maintenance? One thing is certain: If a single big accident caused by an AI-controlled truck is traced to a manufacturing issue, the resulting lawsuits could cripple the industry.
Human agency is at the root of the trust and legal problem. No collection of if/ then statements entered into a computer will ever fully encompass the range of possible scenarios on the open road. Experienced truckers can improvise solutions and react at a moment’s notice to any changes in driving conditions. Not only did the UPS trucks still have humans in the driver’s seat “just in case,” but they also were only allowed to operate in a very particular location. Anyone who’s made the run between Tucson and Phoenix can testify to how bland it can be. For 115 miles you are treated to nothing but a monotonous, straight highway — if you wanted a place to drive with as few variables as possible, this is it. I’d like to see these UPS trucks try to make it through the Grapevine. Finally, the one thing often overlooked in this conversation is the high bar truckers set. Because rigorous state and federal regulations ensure only the best of the best can hold a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), the vast majority of accidents involving human drivers are caused by other vehicles on the road. So, rather than talk about ways to replace these hardworking men and women, I’d like Silicon Valley to invent tools to help drivers do their jobs even better. For example, using a program to regulate driving time could allow lawmakers to loosen regulations around when truckers need to take a break. This flexibility would be a huge boon to those on the road; drivers could leave earlier to avoid rush hour traffic or drive an extra half hour to make it to a better rest stop. Rather than force a change to driverless cars that society does not really want, let’s use the technology we have to fix the challenges of today and make tomorrow better.
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