Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Here come the driverless trucks -- not

What’s all this fuss over self-driving trucks?

You’re forgiven if you think your job is about to disappear, especially if you follow the news. It can seem like driverless trucks will be passing you on I-80 next Tuesday.
Consider the trucking press. In April alone Transport Topics ran four stories about autonomous trucks or platooning. Fleet Owner Magazine ran four, and Heavy Duty Trucking ran five.

Transport Topics reported Google had joined Ford, Volvo (the Chinese-owned car division), plus smartphone-based car services Uber and Lyft to lobby in D.C. for driverless vehicles.

Transport Topics and Heavy Duty Trucking magazine described an ambitious platooning demonstration in Europe, featuring six platoons of two or three trucks apiece, each representing a truck manufacturer -- DAF Trucks (owned by Paccar), Daimler Trucks, Iveco, MAN Truck & Bus (owned by Volkswagen), Scania, and Volvo Group. Each platoon had its own starting point, and all converged in the Dutch port of Rotterdam. Scania had the longest trip, over 900 miles from Stockholm, Sweden.

Hey, Land Line is hardly ignoring the subject. In fact a Land Line contributing editor, our own Suzanne Stempinski, is one of the few people anywhere licensed to drive an autonomous truck, and she actually drove Daimler’s demonstration model in Nevada last year. I write about the subject myself from time to time. But I do take a very different view from some prophets.

For example, Fleet Owner Magazine cited Ryan Peterson, a well-educated technology guy, who wrote in a tech publication that driverless trucks will double productivity even as they put truck stop buffets out of business. He did not say how long those buffets have to live, but I think they’ll be around for quite a while.

An economist named Noel Perry was far less conservative. Heavy Duty Trucking reported Perry’s prediction at an industry webinar that in the next 10 years automation technology will have as enormous an effect on trucking as the Interstate Highway System.

Excuse me?

The Interstate Highway System all but created trucking as we know it. Before the interstates, long-haul trucking was limited at best; there was almost no coast-to-coast trucking at all. Sure, there were some exempt haulers, a handful of private fleets, and the infamous “gypsy” truckers that ranged about the country. But they were few. Common carriers ran local or regional. Most of the stuff we haul now, even LTL, moved by rail. It was a different world.

Noel Perry thinks technology will bring about bigger changes than that.

Short of teleportation? I don’t think so.

In any case, all this coverage recalls the early days of space flight. In the late 1950s every rocket launch made the evening news. It could have been to orbit a beeping chunk of metal, a space cadet, or some poor house pet in a g-suite. American or Russian, every event was big news.

Prognosticators – Mr. Perry’s predecessors – said we would soon be commuting to Mars, vacationing on Jupiter, and walking Pluto about the solar system with a great big doggie bag.

It hasn’t happened yet. It won’t happen in our lifetimes or those of our great-grandchildren.

Still, spectacular predictions are always good business. No one can prove them wrong for years to come, and then it won’t matter. So the space-age prognosticators got paid for their books, articles and speeches, and soon the incremental progress of space flight got boring. Rocket launch stories made page 10 if they ran at all, and TV coverage – but for the moon shot in 1969 and a couple of later disasters – stopped altogether.

The space program faded into the background where it has mostly remained, even as incremental progress continues largely unheralded.

That’s pretty much the way it is with driverless trucking, though on a much smaller scale. We’re watching the first five minutes of a marathon as though it was a sprint.

There are lots of reasons why we won’t see driverless trucks in any serious numbers on public roadways for a long time to come. To their credit, the publications mentioned here are reporting that, too.

For example, CCJ (Commercial Carrier Journal) reported that a consumer group had posed 10 questions the National Highway Traffic Administration should ask Google about its famous driverless car. One asked if Google “has the technology to prevent malicious hackers from seizing control?”

I doubt even Google has a good answer for that one.