Sunday, April 22, 2018

‘Eastbound and down, driverless and truckin’; we’re gonna do what they say can’t be done’

Friday, January 6, 2017
by DOROTHY COX/The Trucker Staff

A truckload of beer made a haul in Colorado last fall with the driver in the sleeper berth for most the trip, the first such run by a "driverless" truck. (The Trucker file photo)
A truckload of beer made a haul in Colorado last fall with the driver in the sleeper berth for most the trip, the first such run by a "driverless" truck. (The Trucker file photo)



Trucking is singing a new song with a familiar tune: “Eastbound and down, driverless and trucking. We’re gonna do what they say can’t be done.”

I know that many who are very much behind the move to autonomous/driverless trucks say drivers will still be needed to perform various duties and keep an eye out should something go awry and they need to take back the wheel.

They also say that these vehicles will attract to the industry millennials who are good at multi-tasking and who would enjoy listening to music while looking at e-mails, exercising and keeping one eye on the road. In other words, bye-bye driver shortage.

Indeed, a lot of folks in trucking have drunk the Kool-Aid, as it were.

And I know it’s early days, yet, as the industry transitions to driverless technology.

None-the-less I was worried — but not surprised — when California regulators just before Christmas ordered Uber to remove its driverless cars from the road the same day they were caught running red lights.

In one case, The Guardian reported, an Uber computer-controlled car plowed through a pedestrian crosswalk in a downtown area about four seconds after the light turned red.

Uber blamed “human error” and said it fired the two people required to sit behind the steering wheels of those two vehicles.

Let’s remember that the man who was killed when his self-driving Tesla ran into the trailer part of a tractor-trailer had been watching a movie and speeding, according to the truck driver involved.

So what were the drivers of these two (or maybe more) Uber cars doing? Texting perhaps? Watching a movie? Checking their e-mail?

The California DMV told Uber it would “initiate legal action” if the company didn’t stop its launch of the driverless vehicles.

So there’s trouble in driverless paradise. And it won’t be the last time.

No doubt there are a lot of bugs to work out. In the Tesla fatality case, the car’s computer couldn’t distinguish the difference between a bright daytime sky and the side of the white trailer (the truck driver was doing a U-turn at the time).

There are just so many circumstances that a computer would have to be programmed for on the road that I don’t see how they’re going to be able to do it.

But then I am bumfuzzled by my new laptop and certainly don’t know anything about what it takes to program a computer that would be directing an 18-wheeler.

I remember quite a few years ago when my mom didn’t want a microwave oven because she didn’t trust the technology and feared they were unsafe. I bought her one for Christmas anyway and then she didn’t know how she’d ever lived without it.

We may get to that point with autonomous and driverless cars and trucks. But until that day comes, it would be safe to say there will definitely be some rough spots.

And speaking of that, potholes and indistinct white lines are giving autonomous/driverless trucks trouble at present. However, I would think developers of driverless technology are already at work smoothing out those wrinkles.

If you didn’t read the December 15 issue of The Trucker, the Society of Automotive Engineers has developed a scale for autonomous vehicles:  Level Zero is no automation, leaving the driver to do everything. Level One is where an automated system can help the trucker with some driving tasks. Level Two is partial automation, in which some of the driving tasks are done through an automated system with the driver monitoring the situation. Level Three is where the automated system takes care of some of the driving while also monitoring the surrounding environment, traffic flow etc., but the driver must be ready to take back the wheel should a problem arise. Level Four is a high level of automation where the automated system can do all the driving and monitor the driving environment without the driver having to take control. However, in this case there are limits to where the driving can occur and under what conditions. Level Five is where the automated system can perform all driving and monitoring tasks without a driver being present.

Levels Four and Five are what will have greater transition issues for trucking, researchers say, but some think these are closer than we think, perhaps in the next 20 years. Maybe less.

They also say that that a human driver will always be needed to interact with customers, inspect equipment (with added training), and in certain situations take the wheel to get off a “smart” highway onto an ancillary “dumb” road that’s unable to communicate with the truck and so on.

Mechanics will have to have additional training as well, which begs the question: Will drivers and mechanics be paid more since they have additional training? One would certainly hope so.

But I guess we will have to cross that [intelligent] bridge when we come to it.

Also, I’m wondering how the powers that be will be able to pay for putting sensors/computers in roads and bridges so that the infrastructure can talk with trucks and automobiles. We haven’t even been able to fix all our potholes, yet.

I’m just sayin.’

Be safe out there and God bless. May you be prosperous and healthy in the new year.       

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