Techno-optimist prognosticators will tell you that driverless trucks are just around the corner. They will also gently tell you--always gently--that yes, truck driving, a job that nearly 3.7 million Americans perform today, is perhaps on the brink of extinction. A startup called Peloton Technology sees the future a bit differently. Based in Mountain View, California, the eight-year-old company has a plan to broadly commercialize a partially automated truck technology called platooning. It would still depend on drivers sitting in front of a steering wheel, but it would be more fuel efficient and, hopefully, safer than truck-based transportation today.
While self-driving trucks and self-driving cars make use of much of the same technology to power their AI systems, it would be a mistake to think the expected roll out date of both developments to would be identical. The sheer weight of semi trucks creates unique technological challenges compared to self-driving cars. The substantial weight of trucks means the time it takes to stop a them is much longer than cars, and trucks have less ability to swerve to avoid an accident. At the same, the way the way trucks are deployed creates possible uses of autonomy which would be economically viable for commercial trucks but not commercial cars. For example, some trucks will spend their entire lifecycle operating on only a limited piece of private property, such as a mine, which simplifies the legal and technical issues with creating an autonomous system.
The trucking industry may be primed for a major labor crisis. According to a new study, autonomous trucks could eliminate as many as 294,000 driving positions over the next 25 years, including the highest-paying jobs held by senior operators. The numbers, though staggering for employees in the sector, aren't substantial enough to have a significant impact on the national labor market writ large, but the industry is being watched closely as a bellwether for the kind of disruption and realignment that will soon take place in many industries as a result of automation. Within the trucking sector, it's unclear how many news jobs will be created as technology continues to streamline operations. The coffee shop wisdom is that automating core jobs in a given sector reduces workforce across that sector.
A dispatcher spotted the mix-up on a live map of Schwebel's 78 trucks and 100 trailers, equipment laced with new technology tying the vehicles to an elaborate live platform showing the company's orders and its trucks in live motion. "Had that not taken place, it would have been eight hours or more of lost time, and our sales team would have been very upset," said Adam Schwebel, the bakery's vice president of operations. From the wheels to the engines and right into their cabs, big rigs rolling on U.S. highways are getting smart. Just as everyday appliances such as refrigerators and thermostats are starting to connect to the internet, the latest heavy-duty trucks are shipping out streams of information, turning 18-wheelers into data hubs moving at 60 mph. Some of the new technology is aimed at getting trucks running more efficiently and with lower operating costs, including savings on fuel spending and scheduling.