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What is the Future of Trucking When Computers Take the Wheel?

transportation of goods by truckWhat does the future hold for humans if technology takes over the job of driving commercial freight trucks? Currently, autonomous driving technology requires a remote human driver. This remote work may be all that’s left for human drivers if robots take the wheel.

As this technology unfolds, it’s going to be extraordinarily disruptive. Self-driving vehicles may make traveling down the highway safer and more efficient, but they may also upset one of the most common jobs in the U.S.

Currently, there are several companies working on driverless vehicle technology. Starsky Robotics, Otto, Peloton and Volvo Trucks are all working on trucks that drive without a human in them. Most companies are looking at models where trucks drive autonomously while on the freeways, but use a “tele” or remote driver when off of the freeway. Peleton and Volvo Trucks are also working on platooning rigs together for efficiency. Trucking, with its long stretches of auto-pilot ready highway, may be the first part of the driving industry to be automated at scale.

Computer scientists have been working on self-driving vehicles for over a decade. Many truck drivers are concerned about their jobs. They are wondering what will happen and if they will be replaced. Will autonomous trucks have human drivers in them? To some drivers, autonomous trucks still feel like science fiction. There are more than 4 million driving jobs in the U.S. today, including commercial freight trucks, buses and taxi drivers.

Proponents say that autonomous vehicles will make transportation more efficient, less expensive and safer. Driverless vehicles have the potential to save millions of lives. But the other side is that it is going to put millions of people out of work. Truck driving is the most common occupation in 30 states; it is one of the few remaining blue collar occupations that’s really reliable and pays a good, solid, middle-class income.

Truckers earn a median of $41,000 median annual income; many earn more. There is a shortage of nearly 50,000 professionals in the U.S. and that number is likely to grow. Trucking isn’t easy. It’s a hard life. You have to maintain a large vehicle over the road for 3-4 weeks at a time, on average, and sometimes even for months at a time. Most truckers would agree that driving is more than a job – it’s a lifestyle.

Many people – both industry insiders and others – are turned off by the idea of autonomous commercial vehicles. They don’t trust them, they don’t think a computer can handle it, they don’t think the data or technology is there yet. Some autonomous driving experts agree and say it could be decades until we see fleets of driverless trucks on the roads.

It’s relatively easy to stage a demonstration that looks impressive and looks like it’s ready. But to get to the point that a system is really ready for public use is vastly more complicated and challenging. The critical aspect of autonomous trucks is making the vehicle safe. What do you have to do to ensure that the system is going to behave properly under every condition it is going to possibly experience? This is something that drivers do all the time, but getting a software system to be as responsive to unexpected circumstances is still a major technological challenge.

Just the weather that most truckers experience is enough to give most fleet owners pause about computers taking the wheel – at least right now. Ice, snow, heavy wind and rain, tornadoes; there’s so many elements truckers have to deal with on a daily basis. Situations like frozen brakes that require a hammer to loosen so the tires start rolling are just one of the scenarios that may keep human drivers in the cab, even if they aren’t actually doing most of the driving.

But driverless vehicle robotics programs plan to take the human out of the equation completely. Highway driving will be computer controlled; human pilots will remotely guide trucks during the critical first and last miles. They envision a future where drivers, who now spend weeks, even months, in isolation on the road, to office jobs, where they would remotely pilot the trucks.

The future of computer-driven trucks remains to be seen. But everyone agrees that a change is coming to the trucking industry. To learn more about trucking technology, coverages, and risk, contact Encompass.

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