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Todd Dills

Back to the future: ‘Trucks of America’ in 1973; The drones are coming! (take four)

| June 20, 2017

Then expediting owner-operator Phil Madsen called his blog “Learning something new every day,” which was hosted on Overdrive up until just before Madsen turned away from trucking toward local business ownership — it’s been a while since I’ve heard from him, but every time the subject of autonomous-truck tech comes up, I think of him.

Before autonomous, self-driving or driverless trucks were terms of art in the trucking conversation, there were drones, flying machines operated by remote control or autonomously/by computer in military (though officially classified), and increasingly consumer, applications. Of course, as with the scrum of businesses fighting over venture-capital dollars with big claims and the like around whatever new tech we’re talking about, commercial delivery ventures around drones at the time were little more than “unmanned aerial publicity machines,” as one writer dubbed Amazon’s “Prime Air” venture.

I think of Madsen because he was among the first writers around trucking to riff on the potential ripple effects of autonomous techs — his “The drones are coming and they’re coming for you” piece envisioned law-enforcement use of automated air drones, for instance:  “If every police department, farmer, fire fighter, utility company, news organization, search and rescue team, researcher, paparazzi, private investigator, meteorologist, photographer and hobbyist gets one that wants one,” Madsen wrote in 2012, “we will soon have thousands of these things in the air and some of them will be watching you.”

While there are plenty drones out there five years later, Amazon’s “Prime Air” still isn’t a wide reality, nor are the kinds of things Madsen speculated about (automated fines delivered via drone for smoking in public, for instance … At once, according to more recent reporting — four years after the effort was initially publicized, Amazon may well have package-delivery drones operating in a test program in the U.K.). Since all that initial publicity, too, we’ve seen a huge growth in the buzz around drones on the roadways, from a multiplicity of automobiles to Freightliner’s big demo of its Inspiration autonomous truck in 2015, plus a variety of splash publicity for other drone rigs since, no shortage of automobiles as well.

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What’s different today is collective officialdom seems bent on moving a lot of these publicity into the territory of the real. Recent Congressional moves have been made that would, in some ways, accelerate removal of what state-by-state legal barriers to implementation of autonomous-vehicle tech exist, bringing all of it under a centralized federal system that might also prevent the further erection of state/local barriers to use on public roads.

Here’s Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) on what he sees Americans of the future saying about us, his illustration of the goal of speeding the development of autonomous techs with legislation, at least as reported in Reuters:

“What a bunch of barbarians — they drove themselves? Are you kidding me? And look at how many died every year and they thought that was acceptable?'” –Rep. Greg Walden, quoted in this Reuters story

Reuters also subsequently reported on draft legislation coming out of the House that would prevent U.S. states “setting their own rules governing design and testing of self-driving cars, while federal regulators would be blocked from demanding pre-market approval for autonomous vehicle technology.”

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Such a move would further open up the landscape for testing for automakers and tech developers on the roads. That legislation is far from becoming law, but you can read more about it at this link. Senators both Republican and Democratic have indicated intentions to move in similar directions.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration itself has expressed similar willingness to build a regulatory framework that at least doesn’t discourage further autonomous tech development in the name of enhanced safety, as I reported from the CVSA Workshop and the agency’s public listening session there. Fortunately, as regular readers will likewise recall, there’s at least some attention among lawmakers to where all this is headed and its potential to put individuals out of work.

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And then there are readers’ views, many of which were encapsulated quite aptly by a commenter remarking under that very story, and echoing the Terminator’s self-destruct aversion noted in my Saturday post:

“The people that want this should be asked to stand out in the highway the same as if a child had run out in the street and see if the truck stops, and if it does, will it stop every time? Why do we have engineers on trains? Why do we even have the FMCSA if they think this is safe?”

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Curiosities: 1973 Overdrive truck puzzle on offer at eBay
None of us here at HQ were even aware that these existed, so yes, the seller is correct when he/she notes that they are rare indeed: On offer at this eBay seller’s page is an Overdrive jigsaw puzzle copywritten 1973, purporting to show a 359 Brockway image when finished. That is, if all the pieces are still there, which the seller’s quick to note he/she can’t exactly confirm. It’s being auctioned through this Saturday.

Though my focus is most often on the present when it comes to trucking, I’ve got half a mind to pick it up myself to balance out all this speculation on the future of late, another piece of history to add to the collection … Now, back to the future …

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