A forecast revisited: ‘Big-rig truck fleets will be driverless’

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Updated Nov 8, 2012

Robot1A decade ago, my colleague Avery Vise often used in his presentations a video clip from “The Simpsons” in which a trucker reveals a secret to Bart and Homer: His truck, thanks to new technology, drives by itself. Even back then, use of technology like GPS and lane-departure warning systems was hardly new, so this had at least a thin tether to reality.

That episode came to mind while reading the current issue of Wired magazine, in which it reviews some of its old forecasts. One, from its May 2005 issue, predicted: “Big-rig truck fleets will be driverless.” Patrick Di Justo, updating that, notes that in May Nevada became the first state to permit autonomous vehicles. Its first licensed robocar was a Toyota Prius.

As of September, Florida and California also have legalized driverless cars. As has been widely reported, Google has been testing robocars (though with drivers in them), now racking up 300,000 self-guided miles without an accident.

One impetus for driverless vehicles is that the vast majority of accidents are due to human error. With today’s technology, a robo-vehicle can constantly analyze its surroundings – moving and non-moving objects – and respond appropriately. No fatigue, no distraction, no stupid moves. Well, I don’t know about the lack of stupidity, given that these will be designed by error-prone humans, but there’s at least potential for some good to come of it.

Turns out there’s a long history, much of it outside the United States, involving testing of driverless cars. However, for obvious reasons, the day when you’ll see a fully loaded tractor-trailer with an empty driver’s seat running down an Interstate is nowhere near.

But I could see uses such as short, low-speed drayage runs at a port or a border commercial zone, where the general public is not at risk. After all, warehouses have used Kiva Systems robots for years. These wireless workhorses – short things, like squared-off bumper cars – zip around the floor, guided by wi-fi signals and coded stickers on the floor, to move stock.

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Taking it closer to Class 8 equipment, here’s a report on driverless trucks and trains being used in Australian mines by Rio Tinto Iron Ore.
The company says it plans to expand to more than 150 driverless trucks there.

Of course, there’s a big difference between navigating off-road and on-highway, so no one’s talking about robot pilots being the answer to trucking’s driver shortage. Autonomous cars, though, appear to be coming. GM has predicted driverless cars on the road by 2018 (though that 2008 forecast might need some tweaking). Given the pathetic driving skills of too many four-wheelers, robocars might well bring a safety improvement that professional drivers will appreciate.