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Point: Why Allowing Driverless Trucks on Public Highways is Still More Than 10 Years Away

Why Allowing Driverless Trucks on Public Highways is Still More Than 10 Years Away

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Driverless trucks have the potential to deliver a number of important commercial and societal benefits, but don’t expect to actually see one on the open highway any time soon.

The commercial arguments in favor of the technology are persuasive. One of the key arguments is that driver shortages, a problem that has dogged the trucking industry for many years, would no longer be an issue if vehicles were automated. Eliminating human drivers would also free the industry of hours of service regulations and improve the utilization of our roads because automated control systems support denser traffic flows.

These are strong arguments—but not in the real world.

The reality is that allowing driverless trucks on our highways requires new rules, and the chances of key legislative bodies, such as the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, approving such rules is remote at best.

Lawmakers have consistently failed to agree on far more urgent and germane legislation such as a transportation bill. Why would they pull out the stops for a potential issue that is considerably more controversial where the returns—both political and commercial—are doubtful?

Despite assurances that driverless trucks will win over public opinion, for most consumers the idea remains science fiction. Yes, cars are becoming more automated and automation generally is on the increase, but conventional big rigs are not exactly viewed as the white knights of the highway. Convincing citizens that these vehicles are perfectly safe without a driver sitting in the cab is an uphill battle that has hardly even begun. Even if the technology’s supporters make some headway, one incident involving a semi- or fully-automated vehicle will deepen public skepticism and raise the political stakes even higher.

Not far behind the safety issue is the question of employment. Will politicians champion a technology that eliminates well-paid driving jobs? Again, why should they take a risk—in this case, possibly incurring the wrath of a broad swath of the electorate including organized labor—when there are other causes to take up that from their perspective are more worthwhile?

The notion that our elected officials will take on the task of selling driverless trucks to voters is, to put it mildly, far-fetched.

Of course, there are stakeholder groups, such as the business community, that advocate truck automation. But their support is not enough to sway the argument. Consider, for example, that many of the most powerful business groups have long lobbied for increased infrastructure investment with limited success. Why should they succeed on such an outlier issue as driverless trucks?

I am not dismissing the idea completely. There are closed commercial applications of automated trucks in freight yards and other facilities that are advancing the technology.

However, it will take a lot longer than proponents claim for these vehicles to make an appearance on public highways. Even when people are completely comfortable with car automation, it will still require a lot of education and reassurance before they accept driverless commercial rigs. There are examples of technological advances outpacing legislation, but this is not one of them.

The driverless truck is an attractive idea, but contrary to what others would have you believe, its time is not imminent.

When do you think we will see driverless trucks on public highways?

Editor’s note: This post originally ran in October 2014 on Connect. Since this is a relevant topic, we wanted to share it with you here on Transportfolio.

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