SAN FRANCISCO — The trucks rumble out of California ports laden with freight destined for all points east, an incessant ballet of goods, gear and labor long synonymous with commerce, independence and the open road.
But a key player in this quintessentially American dance could soon disappear: the trucker.
A new technological dawn is breaking over an industry that moves 70% of the nation’s wares, one that promises to impact the lives of 3.5 million truck drivers similar to how tractors revolutionized farming a century ago.
Technologists promise that self-driving trucks are coming, a disruptive shift targeting a slice of trucking’s $700 billion annual freight revenues by removing the human behind the wheel — which, as with ride-hailing, remains the most costly part of the business.
Job-security issues aside, the thought of automated road behemoths with no one at the wheel immediately raises concerns among truckers about reliability, capability and, most of all, safety.
“I’ve driven 4 million miles, and yet every day I head out there’s always some new situation I have to deal with,” says Dick Pingel, 64, of Plover, Wisc., who has amassed nearly a half-century of truck driving experience.
He welcomes tech innovations that make his job easier, but remains unconvinced that a computer can be ready for anything.
“Can it really distinguish between a deer and a child and always make the right call?”
Uber has paused its self-driving operations as authorities investigate the crash. Toyota has also halted its tests.
Police have described the accident as “unavoidable,” but also released a video showing the safety operator behind the wheel — who was supposed to provide human back-up to the car — looking down at something just before the crash.
Fears about the pitfalls of ceding control of large, dangerous vehicles to software have been a constant companion in the drive toward autonomy. But the financial incentives — and a belief that computers will ultimately trump humans in safety — have kept the new technology rumbling along.
From deep-pocketed Google-owned Waymo to upstart Starsky Robotics, a range of companies are at work reinventing trucking just as artificial intelligence and big data are similarly transforming manufacturing, farming and healthcare.
— They may be ditching cross-country hauls and staying local as they leave interstate highway runs to self-driving rigs. This could provide more time with loved ones but would also likely cut into earning potential as well as, for some, the appeal of hitting the road.
— They could be sleeping in the back of their self-driving big rigs during long stretches, banking valuable driving hours while still being on the road an earning a living. But veteran drivers suggest getting shut-eye would be impossible for fear of crashes.
— And they might wind up driving trucks remotely much like drone pilots, using their skill at maneuvering massive vehicles while never leaving their hometowns. This seems appealing, but also may be a recipe for accidents and insurance headaches.
“My lens on all things autonomous is that use cases will ultimately be proven out by actual need,” says Gartner analyst Michael Ramsey.
Other players are stepping up their game in response. A start-up called Embark last month completed a five-day, coast-to-coast run in a self-driving truck.
“By taking on the long-haul portion of driving, we create an opportunity for drivers to shift into local driving jobs, which tend to be more desirable as they increase their time at home,” says Embark COO Mike Reid.
Tesla recently unveiled its Tesla Semi, an electric truck packed with self-driving Autopilot aids that include automatic emergency braking, lane keeping and lane departure warning. It can also use sensors to drive in a convoy with other Tesla Semis.
Creating fuel savings based on tech and aerodynamics is the focus of Silicon Valley-based Peloton Technology. Using sensors to keep two trucks within 50 feet of each other, thereby cheating the wind, could prove a short-cut to success since it doesn’t involve fully automating the truck.
“We’re taking a pragmatic approach by offering truckers fuel savings ranging from 4.5% for the lead truck to 10% to the second truck, which is significant when fuel is 35% of a company’s per-mile operating expense,” says Peloton Technology CEO Josh Switkes.
And then there’s a company that thinks truckers can work without sitting in their rigs. Last month a team of 21 engineers at San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics managed to remotely steer a sensor-packed truck for seven miles along a rural Florida highway.
“If you don’t take the driver out of the truck, you’re not changing anything,” says Starsky’s Stefan Seltz-Axmacher. “Here’s an opportunity for you to (virtually) drive a truck, but then you leave work and just go home to your family.”
View from the driver’s seat
But truckers aren’t so sure they are down with the coming self-driving revolution — and it doesn’t help that Goldman Sachs recently predicted automation could kill 300,000 trucking jobs a year starting around 2045.
Even if the autonomous technology works, a number of concerns loom.
“Who’s going to insure these trucks if there’s no one driving them or if someone is just passed out in the cab sleeping?” says Norita Taylor of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents the heartbeat of the trucking industry: individuals who own their six-figure rigs and pay for them by contracting out their time.
“I’m not sure these entrepreneurs have thought about what happens when there’s a crash and the trial lawyers get involved,” she says.
Not a chance, says V. Paul Herbert, a veteran truck driver turned truck safety expert with the Western Motor Carrier Safety Institute.
In response to questions about self-driving trucks, Herbert sends a voluminous email that boils down to a simple declaration: “An autonomous big rig will never be able to possess the insight or reasoning capability of a well-trained professional truck driver.”
Herbert says even though companies are focusing on highway driving, autonomous trucks won’t have a human driver’s trained habit of looking 12 to 15 seconds down the road for oncoming hazards — critical when piloting a 70-foot long, 13-foot high, 80,000 pound truck that take twice the distance to stop than a car.
“Let’s just say, I have very significant reservations about autonomous big rigs sharing the roadways with my family members,” says Herbert.
So does the powerful Teamsters Union, which after the Arizona Uber crash released a statement expressing extreme reservations about self-driving trucks testing on public highways, noting that its 600,000 members “are among the safest (drivers) on the road.”
The road ahead is still foggy
Unless you live in states such as Arizona, California, Nevada, Michigan and Florida, you’re unlikely to come across a truck that isn’t helmed by a trucker.
The reality is that there still is a lot of work to be done before your Amazon order or groceries are shuttling along highways by themselves.
Large insurance companies also say they are beginning to look into the implications of self-driving vehicles of all kinds, and federal regulators are monitoring companies working on such tech, hoping to both stem the growing tide of traffic fatalities — some 40,000 last year — while encouraging technological progress.
And given that many self-driving tech experts say humans may always been needed for big rigs to navigate city streets, it would seem that many veterans of this vital transportation solution may see retirement before radical change.
“Everyone is very aware of this coming trend, but it’s not around the corner,” says Jordan Nelson, trucking industry analyst with Oklahoma City-based KSM Transport Advisors.
“Regulators aren’t clear how they’ll handle this, the public likely wants to see a driver for the scare-factor alone, and you have lots of companies all trying different approaches to the same problem,” he says. “This tech is exciting, but no one thinks it’ll solve everything.”