OMBUDSMAN ALERT: What, No Driver? Self-Driving Trucks Are on their Way!

By Dr. Louis Alpert
RCT Ombudsman

Breaking News From M.I.T. 

As an M.I.T. Alumnus as well as a former mathematics instructor at the Institute, this Ombudsman is pleased to introduce the controversial subject of self-driving trucks. The latest information on this subject can be found in my March, 2017 copy of the “MIT Technology Review” entitled “10 Breakthrough Technologies.”

Upon my request, the editor of the M.I.T. publication, Jason Pontin, has granted our column permission to directly quote from this piece.

Before doing so, I would first pose the following question to our readers: Given the choice of having an experienced truck driver at the wheel or having a highly sophisticated computer operate a fully-loaded tractor-trailer truck with the human driver merely occupying the sleeper berth at the back of the cab without touching the vehicle’s controls, which option do you believe would best serve, in the first place, the critical need of safety, and secondly the efficiency and speed of the delivery?

If you do not have a ready answer to this question, you are not alone, since the ongoing research and actual monitored trials of self-driving trucks conducted by such companies as OTTO, a San Francisco company that outfits trucks with the equipment needed to drive themselves, has not yet provided a definitive answer to this question.

I quote now from M.I.T. as follows:

“At first glance the opportunities and challenges posed by self-driving trucks might seem to merely echo those associated with self-driving cars. But trucks aren’t just long cars. For one thing, the economic rationale for self-driving trucks might be even stronger than the one for driverless cars. Autonomous trucks can coordinate their movements to platoon closely together over long stretches of highway, cutting down on wind drag and saving on fuel. And letting the truck drive itself part of the time figures to help truckers complete their routes sooner.”

“But the technological obstacles facing autonomous trucks are higher than the ones for self-driving cars. Otto and other companies will need to demonstrate that sensors and code can match the situational awareness of a professional driver—skills honed by years of experience and training in piloting….in the face of confusing road hazards, poor surface conditions and unpredictible car drivers”

MIT goes on to address the politics which always will enter into the possible loss of jobs in case self-driving trucks do take hold. This Ombudsman was surprised to learn that, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 1.7 million trucking jobs in the United States!  While it is unlikely that this technology will replace workers anytime soon, it will possibly alter the nature of the job in ways that not all will welcome!

The bold picture displayed above of  the Budweiser tractor-trailer truck bearing the sign: “PROUDLY BREWED, SELF-DRIVEN” displays the highly successful delivery of 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer 200 kilometers down Interstate 25 in Colorado from from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. To quote from MIT:

“That commercial delivery was the first ever to be handled by an autonomous heavy truck, illustrated the potential of the technology. But it also demonstrated the current limitations. The human driver piloted to and from the highway, the old-fashioned way, because the technology doesn’ t drive on small rural roads or in cities. Even after it was on the highway, a car drove ahead of the truck to make sure the far right remained clear. Otto’s system is programmed to stay in that lane, because on many roads trucks are restricted to the far right and are generally considered safer there. And the truck was surrounded by several cars carrying carrying OTTO personnel and Colorado State Patrol staff.”

It is most appropriate to end this article with a statement from Greg Murphy, a professional truck driver of 40 years:

“This system often drives better than I do.”

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