It's probably a good thing, and not nearly as icky as it looks. It's almost certainly inevitable: robots are going to start doing more and more big-rig driving, especially on freeways, especially when conditions aren't challenging.
The good news? They don't fall asleep. They aren't going to be texting or Facebooking on smartphones. They won't even be yelling at one another on CB radios.
The bad news is that they don't cope well with the unexpected. So far, they don't like snow, rain can be problematic, and as for ice on the road, they have more trouble seeing it than you do. They --and more to the point, us, including the people who are testing them -- aren't hugely comfortable on busy city streets.
But they are coming. Listen -- my line of work once took a lot of people, mainly doing kind of dull jobs that occasionally got very busy but mostly consisted of setting things up ahead of time, pushing buttons on precise cues, and putting the material back into storage, over and over. The busy times, each job ran very close to as much as one person can reliably do at one time. Busy or slow, the work required attention at all times. Scheduling what happened when was a complex game, like three-dimensional Go. And then, we got computers. Scheduling got them first; you still needed a human to double-check and adjust, but a job that took five or six people eight hours now took one or two. And step by step, the computers started running more and more of the, well, drudge jobs. The equipment changed. The jobs for people changed. One day, what uses to take three or four people could be done by one person and multiple computers -- who still is, at the busiest times, doing as much as one average person can manage to do at one time.
That's the model for trucking. We're liable to have drivers behind the wheel for many more years -- but increasingly, they'll be managing the machines that will do most of the work instead of doing the work themselves. Truck "trains" are a distinct possibility. And the routine parts of the job where a human fails -- the long, dull stretches of highway -- will be handed off to a machine. You can count on it.
The question is, where does the human fit in? Can one person behind the wheel of one truck manage multiple trucks? (It certainly works on rails -- though there are usually two or three people, and the traffic and its management are an altogether different process.)
Automatable jobs will be automated eventually. Me, I moved to fixing the automatons
The other side of this is what powers the trucks. It's easy and fun to sneer at electric vehicles -- after all, the power plant is most likely to burn coal, hundreds of miles away from the vehicle itself. The flip side is, it's a lot easier to hang a really effective muffler on one big coal-fired generating plant than on ten thousand scurrying cars and trucks. Some heavily-used truck routes are looking into overhead catenary cables to power trucks, an ugly but very mature technology you can find running trains and buses in many cities, and a system that can pay off in states with restrictive emissions regulations for vehicles. I think you can count on it. (Personally, I've always liked Robert A. Heinlein's open linear induction motor truckways -- one of the better descriptions can be found in Starman Jones -- but they're inefficient and expensive. On the other hand, they're a lot less ugly than overhead wires, which would help with NIMBY concerns. On the other other hand, the infrastructure would be considerably more costly to build, even before you get around to putting truck-analogs on it.)
6 days ago