If you can’t say something nice, come sit beside me

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ladiesSometimes, I just can’t stand it.

I read an article from the Alaska Dispatch News yesterday about robots replacing 1.7 million truckers in ten years. This is about the 400th article I’ve read recently about the Borg moving in and taking over all the jobs the Borg can do. Mostly trucking, because apparently the people designing these autonomous vehicles and proselytizing their imminent takeover of the world have never been on an American highway, inside a big truck outside of a parking lot, or used brain power for anything other than putting the wagon before the wheel.

Of course we have the technology to achieve autonomous travel. It’s been perfected in the aircraft world for years, and you know why? Because the infrastructure is a little more malleable when it’s clouds. There are also very few unlicensed and uninsured pilots out there, taking the Chevy racing K-Maroplane for a Budweiser-fueled Sunday afternoon cruise into professionally used airspace.
It happens, but it doesn’t happen often.

Jerry Kaplan is a Stanford lecturer and the author of “Humans Need Not Apply” and “Artificial Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to Know.” He is quoted in this particular article, when asked what jobs are being specifically targeted by robotics and why, as saying, “Long-haul truck driving is a great example where there isn’t much judgment involved and it’s a fairly controlled environment.”

Hold up.


Mr. Kaplan, I’d like you to bring your white-shoes-after-Labor-Day self over here and sit down beside me for a minute. We’re gonna talk a little, get to know each other, and then I’m going to be mean to you for a minute. I’ll absolutely give you an opportunity to retort, and promise to listen if you promise to do the same.

I’d like to know the last time you were inside a big truck in a professional capacity. I’d also be thrilled if you could show me how your robot is going to find “Death Row Parking” on the South side of Nashville, Tenn., when it doesn’t really exist and is actually a plywood sign, instead of a delivery address. I’d like to be enlightened as to how the Chicago loop is in any way “controlled,” and if it is, I’d like to respectfully request the entity controlling it be relieved of all duties, including drawing breath, and existing on this planet, because they are clearly evil.

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What’s that? Oh, you mean you’re only going to run autonomous vehicles on open highways? Oh I get it. So all these warehouses that people don’t want built on the exit ramp to their cities now are going to magically appear when what happens? Do we get beans from a giant? Wait, let me guess. We’re going to need humans to steal beans from the giant, but not to drive the trucks. Awesome. Makes sense to me.

The one thing all of y’all seem to be forgetting is that we haven’t got an infrastructure these vehicles will run efficiently and safely on. I’m intrigued by your ideas, and feel like they may actually be the future one day, but it will take at least one more, if not two, generations of gubmint diddle-whopping to get the money to lay down roads these things can actually run on enough to pay for the cost of implementing it, not to mention the unemployment it’s going to cause. Also, good luck having your robot deliver a DOT load of steel to the underside of swampy bridge in Louisiana.

You can’t keep making more people and less jobs. And a robot can’t do the job of a professional driver, because it is operating in an absolutely not-controlled environment. Saying so is like saying it’s OK to let three-year-olds toddle around in an industrial printing press because there are professionals running the press, and that makes it a controlled environment. It is not so, and you can’t make it so until you take the Joe Blow commuter/vacationer/cell phone distracted/drunk/inexperienced driver (and the like) out of the professional driving equation. (Side note: there are these people called “Law Enforcement” who have been trying to do that for years now, so it’s kind of an uphill battle that gets worse with every newly licensed, casual, untrained driver.)

Mr. Kaplan, I’d like to invite you to expand your mode of thinking a little about trucking, and maybe consider doing a ridealong with someone for about a month. I’d like you to understand that there are far more achievable and efficient ways to move freight in this country, and none of them have to do with driving the trucks at all. They have to do with tasking the entire system to be accountable for times and appointments. It’s really that simple.

It doesn’t take a robot to know if you have thirty docks and make one hundred 7 a.m. appointments for a four-hour unloading time, you’re going to have an average of sixty-six trucks sitting for at least four hours, wasting time that could be well spent elsewhere, not to mention fuel. That’s insane, and it’s practiced daily and accepted in this industry. And your driving robots ain’t gonna change it.

It’s only one of the things I think you’d be enlightened about, should you choose to do so. I can also assure you, with great certainty, that you won’t feel “controlled” or “safe” if the driver you ride with decides to take his or her hands/eyes/entire concentration off the road for even a second when you’re whizzing around the north side of 285 in Atlanta, dodging black BMWs like kitchen flies and trying to keep up with the flow of traffic. No sir. Not controlled at all.