Automate The Freight: Robotic Deliveries Are On The Way

Seems like all the buzz about autonomous vehicles these days centers around self-driving cars. Hands-free transportation certainly has its appeal – being able to whistle up a ride with a smartphone app and converting commute time to Netflix binge time is an alluring idea. But is autonomous personal transportation really the killer app that everyone seems to think it is? Wouldn’t we get more bang for the buck by automating something a little more mundane and a lot more important? What about automating the shipping of freight?

Look around the next time you’re not being driven to work by a robot and you’re sure to notice a heck of a lot of trucks on the road. From small panel trucks making local deliveries to long-haul tractor trailers working cross-country routes, the roads are lousy with trucks. And behind the wheel of each truck is a human driver (or two, in the case of team-driven long-haul rigs). The drivers are the weak point in this system, and the big reason I think self-driving trucks will be commonplace long before we see massive market penetration of self-driving cars.

Any business owner will tell you that his or her biggest problems come from dealing with employees. Humans are, well, human. The get sick, they get bored, they get greedy and steal from you, they get in a snit and walk out on you. Even if they are model employees, eventually they wear out and retire, needing replacement. And until that day comes, you have to pay the employee. The more employees, the more problems, the more time wasted on non-productive stuff, and the more money that flies out the door. The fact that almost every one of those truck drivers is someone’s employee, and therefore someone’s problem, makes them a ripe target for being automated out of a job.

Look Ma, no driver. Source: Otto
Look Ma, no driver. Source: Otto

Think it can’t happen? It already is. Uber’s freight division recently acquired Otto, a truck automation startup founded by ex-Google, Apple, and Tesla talent. An Otto-equipped truck recently completed a 120-mile autonomous beer delivery in Colorado with the driver cooling his heels in the sleeper compartment. He was still needed to start and end the run, but the day can’t be far behind when even those tasks will be automated away and the driver can be replaced entirely.

The point is, as sexy as it might be to have a self-driving car, there’s nowhere near the economic incentive to replace you behind the wheel of your daily driver as there is to replace the driver of a long-haul or local delivery truck. You’d be paying for the privilege of easing your commute, while thousands of trucking companies stand to save billions of dollars each year by replacing carbon-based drivers with silicon. That alone makes it far more likely that the trucks will be automated long before cars.

aXatlantic’s ocean-going drone.

And it won’t just be trucks. My guess is that anything that plies a more or less fixed route with bulk goods is ripe for having the humans taken out of the loop. Shipping seems like a perfect target. Most modern container ships are already highly automated, at least in terms of controlling and navigating the ship. It once took hundreds of seamen to man a vessel; automation has already reduced that to a dozen or so, and it’s easy to imagine a completely autonomous container ship someday. A small step in that direction is the aXatlantic project, which seeks to build a drone ship capable of autonomously crossing the Atlantic.

Are there obstacles to the automation of the world’s freight ways? Of course, and as usual, they’re mostly carbon-based. The drivers, pilots, sailors and engineers that currently run the system are all likely to resist the trend, and most of them are represented by labor unions that will no doubt get into the process politically. The buggy-whip makers were once a powerful lobby too, but you don’t see many around these days. The laws of economics are hard to resist, at least in the long term, and my guess is that a driverless truck barrelling down the highway or working a local parcel delivery route will be commonplace long before self-driving cars no longer raise an eyebrow.

162 thoughts on “Automate The Freight: Robotic Deliveries Are On The Way

  1. Yeah, well, the not-truck drivers are just as much a problem. These idiots in their “Smart Car” that whip in front of an 18 wheeler, and then slow down. Just NO concept of physics, and that a 36,000 lb vehicle cannot stop in the same distance as you’re 1800 lb death trap.

    1. “your”. I know this, but I don’t always type it correctly the first time. And even after thousands of requests for a 5 minute edit window for the last however many years, we still have to leave the embarrassing typos out in the wild.

      1. Perhaps embarassing typos have a benefit — reinforcing the importance of proofreading and thinking as you write. think of it as ‘exposing how much effort was put into the post’. You could certainly give yourself a 5-minute window, but it is always easier to ask other people to do it for you.

        Think of it like speaking in meatspace — or even like email! Neither of those have an edit window.

        Besides, there’s substantial things to consider about editing.. There’s all kinds of trickery associated with changing the record of the past. Altering the record of the past can also be used to create a chilling effect on discussion. Look at the recent rise of the blockchain, and even the encryption used for non-repudiation.

        the HaD writers do an excellent job of handling the issue – they make corrections, but strikeout the incorrect version, simultaneously articulating their previous mistakes, the corrections, and admitting human flaws. I’m down with that.

        1. Thank you, Miss Manners. Any other words of wisdom? Perhaps you can explain to us all which side of the plate the knife and fork should be placed, and how the napkins should be folded.

          Thousands of major websites have the ability to edit posts. Facebook and G+ come to mind immediately. Apparently it’s not THAT complicated, technically or socially, for edits to be handled. In “meat space”, as far as English goes, “your” and “you’re” are pronounced nearly identically, and most people (perhaps yourself excluded) don’t assume someone pronounced “you’re” as “your”.

          And what did this have to do with the HaH writers, anyway? They CAN edit their posts. Users can not edit their own comments. Judging from the dozens of other comments I’ve run across, there are a LOT of people that wish to be edit their own comments, generally for simple typographical mistakes, or to correct a URL.

          1. get over it, we are not getting an edit button. there is an EXIT button though, usually located in the top left corner of the browser window, or the mains circuit breaker in your electrical panel.

          2. Only solution that’s under poster control is browser extensions that reduce the chances of typos and other grammatical mistakes, not to mention board features like image links. Perfect? No, but sometimes when given lemons, one opens a lemonade stand.

        2. “Think of it like speaking in meatspace”

          Probably not the example I’d go for. In actual speech you have plenty of opportunity to correct yourself after you’ve said something.

          Meh. As a software dev, I appreciate the temptation to paint bugs as features. By framing software short-comings as ‘user error’ you get the opportunity to dismiss and patronise someone simultaneously.

          As it is, though, there are an awful lot of people that think a small edit window would improve things. It’d allow people to rephrase things clearly and correct embarrassing mistakes. It’d improve the quality of discussion.

      2. you’re right, that would be nice ;)

        The more I drive the more I’m convinced that capitalistic economic model does not work for driving. (everyone working in their own self interest) Mostly because they we don’t have a good concept of risk & cost for driving.
        Have you ever been passed by some in-such-a-damn-hurry car only to pull up slowly beside them at the next light?
        What did all that zipping around buy that car? Nothing, we both effectively got where we’re going at the same time.

          1. I drive a (used, got a great deal) Porsche and have yet to get a speeding ticket. I do sometimes hit 120, but only on roads I know and can see what’s ahead. Always puts a great big smile on my face.

            The difference in the minute-by-minute driving experience compared to my F-150 or work van is astounding, I also recommend grabbing a miata to anyone, so much actual fun.

        1. I’m on a timeclock, and being first at several lights can possibly get me to work on time, if I’m over two minutes late I get a point. three points and I might get fired.
          Thanks toyota non-union car plants in the US.

        2. As a counterpoint to the smugness you feel when you pull up slowly beside a car who (likely thanks to being stuck behind you) just missed a green light, you should consider all the times that going 5km/h faster for a few dozen meters let them get through a light before it changed, saving them minutes per trip.

          1. Yes, it uses on-board weight sensors. This system is becoming common in new Mack, Volvo, Mercedes semi trucks. There are also MASSIVE incentives for companies and drivers to switch to trucks that have the new safety equipment in place via insurance, and lease/financing promotions.

        1. Great – an ability so truck drivers can terrify drivers of cars who won’t know the truck won’t hit them. It’s a small number, but when they are frustrated in slow traffic some truck drivers seem to want to take it out on the little cars slowing them down. Just clip the speaker wire and ride the bumper and let the truck do the job of maintaining that edge.

          Also, if traction isn’t as high as the trucker expects then collide away.

    2. Yeah, Especially coming up to red lights.

      I had the same problem on motorbikes – some ass two meters behind you at 100kM/h and you think – well is not so great that I can stop 6 meters before you.

      1. I was being tailgated by a pickup truck on the highway once while driving a motorcycle. I did the usual “tap the brakes”, “wave at him”, and more, but he wouldn’t back off, and wouldn’t pass. Fed up, I dropped two gears, hit the brakes, slowed down really fast, revved hard, and accelerated away before he could rear end me. He locked his brakes and went skidding all over the road. Oddly enough he maintained a proper following distance from then on. (I was 19, and not quite thinking “if this goes wrong I’m dead, and thankfully it didn’t)

        1. When I was younger and rode, I’d pick up a little road gravel and put it in my jacket pocket. I’d trickle a little out and it would bounce into the windshield of cars that were following too closely. Enraged drivers? Not very often. They thought it was just rocks getting kicked up by my tires. I quit riding years ago after both my younger brothers were almost killed by some idiot woman making a left turn across multiple lanes of traffic. She got off light with a face shredded by glass.

  2. The 800 lbs gorilla in any discussion of autonomously controlled vehicles is the vast number of jobs that are going to be made redundant. It’s not just drivers that will be gone, but the fact is, the huge potential increase in fleet utilization means there will not be the need for as many units and that means losses on the manufacturing side as well. This is going to hit global economies like a ton of bricks and there is little in the way of forward thinking over the implications of this beyond some hand wringing among macroeconomic theoreticians and the a few futurist writers. This is such a potential issue, I see the distinct possibility that this technology will be actively suppressed by legislative fiat in many polities.

          1. IQ is correlated with education, in turn correlated with income. No need to be an elitist asshole from the privileged position of living in a first-world country with a decent educational system.

    1. >>I see the distinct possibility that this technology will be actively suppressed by legislative fiat in many polities
      If it saves the companies money & benefits the economy, those people who suppress this technology will fall to the wayside like the Luddites who smashed weaving looms & factory equipment.

      1. The Luddites failed because in the long run machine looms increased net employment even as it eliminated skilled jobs – this technology will reduce it across the board. The situations are very different.

        1. that is an unproven assumption, most technologies follow the path of the loom on this subject, they might short term cost employment but most have big long term benefits to all involved, from farming equipment to factories.

          i also find the idea that work is something everyone should do, even if that requires you to be worse at something as a society, to be the opposite of ideal.

          1. You do understand that there is a significant difference in that weavers were highly skilled workers who were being replaced by unskilled labor in a growing market where the unit cost was falling. In this case (relatively) unskilled workers are being replaced in a situation where the market is shrinking due to increased productivity. This is not to suggest that this technology should not be developed, but unlike the case during the Industrial Revolution, there isn’t room for the vast increase in consumption drove higher employment.

            This is what economists are referring to when they talk about post-scarcity. Post-scarcity is the economic condition in which most goods and services can be provided in great abundance with minimal human labor, and is defined by a severe reduction in the workforce. Historically this occurred once already in farming where technology caused a drastic reduction in the amount of labor needed to produce food. At that time surplus labor was absorbed by the Industrial Revolution, and migration to settlement colonies, however today there is no major labor sink on the horizon, nor are there any place for migrants to go.

            In other words the situation is very different.

          2. in all of those situations people were painting as bad of a picture while they stood in it, thing is we cant as people predict the future, i might very well be wrong but history has had this happen hundreds of times and all with roughly the same outcome, so for now i will say that is probably going to happen again.

            hunters got supplanted by farmers, something they couldnt have imagined a few thousand of years before when they started tool use, the farmers got supplanted by industrial workers, something they couldnt have imagined just a few hundred years before, then in the span of a single century the industrial workers were replaced by services, academia, design speciality production, development, administration and well to be frank so many things that no one could have imagined half a century before, let alone a whole century.

            to say that there will be nothing to do is as much of a fallacy as saying it wont have consequences, something as simple as lowering the amount worked by any single person might help, but you are absolutely right that it would require some very serious and difficult changes to society.

        2. They also greatly reduced the cost of faberic so more people could afford it and not have to spend hours a day making their own.
          Self driving trucks would not make large changes for consumers in cost or saved time.
          The reduction in cost at store would be smalll maybe even unnoticable so the main people to benifit would be the owners of shipping companies.

          1. Exactly, but they will decrease the number of jobs, and that’s the issue. Reducing the cost of textiles grew the market such that there was a net increase in the number of jobs that offset by several orders of magnitude those lost from manual looms. For the reason you mentioned, this will not be the case here.

          2. The mechanised factories of the last industrial revolution wasn’t particularly brilliant for workers. It took a few centuries of industrial action and two world wars to get to levels of relative wealth distribution we have to today.

            It looks like we’re heading back that way.

    2. Given that trucking companies push drivers (consciously or otherwise) to drive more hours and that drivers themselves sometimes push rest limits to get jobs done, Id say there is a need for more capacity in the transport industry than is possible with human drivers. As more people get a better education worldwide, theyll want a better standard of living. We are going to manufacture more rather than less, it will just be in different ways. More small run, no or low stock held, late dispatch and less warehouses full of thousands of units and regular dispatches. If we want to survive a world full of people with the ability to buy things then we have to move away from the inefficient ways of the past.

      1. Look i’m not saying this should not happen, but I am pointing out that it is potentially a very disruptive technology, and I’m not so sure that the problems will ‘grow out’ with economic growth through increased productivity as has occurred in similar situations. In fact this is one more step in the march towards a post-scarcity economy that will require major systemic changes that nobody seem prepared to make.

      2. The funny thing about the “better standard of living” is when I talked to a former Teamster driver, now retired, he’s doing pretty good on his pension. It’s hard work, but eventually it pays off.

        1. Hmmm. Someone who belonged to a union, was in that career for a long period, and got to retire with a pension.

          These are not words you get to hear so much these days.

          back on topic: ” What about automating the shipping of freight?”

          …What about more trains?

          1. Trains, trams and subways are probably a better place for transport automation to start, as it only has to deal with controlling the speed, the direction is already taken care of :D

        2. It is a good living and most I talked to in the business say they’d rather be on the road driving a truck then working in an office cubical or something even worse that enemy of efficiency and sanity known as the open plan office.

    3. This old argument could and has been used on countless advancements in technology for a very very very long time. People need to grow with the tech, I think that’s a pretty damn obvious answer. Also, get realistic with how long it would actually take to fully implement this advancement. Meaning, If your industry now, the iTruck isnt going to take your job. If you’ve just graduated high school… I would consider another career path.

      What your talking about is simply an excuse to keep the ones actually making there big bucks, to keep making there big bucs. Have you never herd of the term “lobbyist”. You know, multi billion dollar payoff bullshit to persuade politicians to do whats best for an individual company. Dress it up in what ever excuse you want, but the root of it all is individual greed in obscene proportions.

      1. That’s not what he was saying.
        He simply pointed out that currently the productivity gains due to technological advancements aren’t shared equally with the whole population and that if we keep going down that path the ones falling onto the way side will be pretty peed off.

    4. > increase in fleet utilization means there will not be the need for as many units and that means losses on the manufacturing side as well

      You’ve fallen for the common misconception of disruptive tech. Shipping by truck will become cheaper and faster than ever before with the most expensive components removed from the system (pee breaks, naps, food) and greater optimization (ideal speed/fuel burn, ideal routing, auto rerouting, optimal arrival scheduling, optimal drafting). Thinks that had to ship by air or train for various reason will now be going by truck. We’ll have more trucks on the road than ever before.

      1. Neither of the last two posters in this thread seem to have looked at current concerns raised in this matter by economists who are well aware of the history of disruptive technology and who have made a point of underlining the fact that this situation is very different than in the past. This idea of autonomous vehicles is a major step toward in the march toward post-scarcity wherein, by definition, labor is in so much surplus that it cannot be absorbed by further growth. This is because of the shear number of people employed in this sector. All other instances of disruptive change in the production of goods in the past had an underserved market for consumer goods or avenues of escape for economic migrants in the form of settlement colonies to act as a sink for displaced labor. That doesn’t exist anymore, and if you want to argue otherwise, you have to show where this potential for growth exists, particularly in the developed world where birthrates are falling. Merely asserting that simply because there was a positive correction in the past from these events is not enough – state HOW this will occur to balance the loss of jobs if you want to make a meaningful argument.

        1. A part of the solution will be the unconditional basic income.
          The future will be decided how that one is being ‘financed’.
          To make any sense it would need to redistribute the gains of productivity/automation advances (by machines) to the whole population.
          But one can easily guess that the ones owning all the machines, plants and capital won’t agree with this POV and do everything in their power to keep their part of the cake.
          So the bill will be going to the ones that still work (mostly).
          If humanity survives ACG this will be the biggest test for us right thereafter, unless Singularity comes before that.

          1. I do believe that this particular technology IS the leading edge of the technological Singularity in that it meets the criterion of pushing human society past the point where change can be dealt with by traditional approaches. In that light basic income schemes, which are founded on current economic principles, may not be the answer since there is no guarantee going forward that our concepts of value and exchange will will have the same meaning in a post-scarcity civilization.

      2. Great! Now we’ll have greater wear on the roads, so the American taxpayer can continue subsidizing Wal-Mart’s profits! Autonomous rail would be much better, and avoid the shitty inefficiencies of 30 square feet of rubber tires on pavement.

    1. Is there a reason they can’t have bigger tanks?

      As for security, if the thing aint stoppin, ain’t no body gettin on!

      (I know this isn’t strictly true, but in the case of immigrants trying to board trucks in france this is exactly what happens).

      1. “if the thing aint stoppin”, well just drive in front of it and stop, the truck will stop and you have unrestricted access to the goods. And before security will be there you’re gone with the goods. Or perhaps shoot at the tires of the thing, you can’t hurt the driver so no need to worry about that.
        Nope… the longer I think about it the more I doubt about the security of the goods in a fully automated system. And I’m not even a criminal, because real criminals have most likely much more ” advanced” techniques of getting the goods.

        1. As for the fuel: if there is no need for driver amenities, there is more room for fuel.

          As for the security: How much security does your current average long-haul truck driver provide, honestly? They bleed, can be bribed/intimidated in other words they can easily be removed from the vehicle, a la hijacking. The truck also has to stop for the bathroom/meal/sleep needs of the driver. No driver, no stop. A moving target is always harder to hit. In the event a criminal intentionally causes the rig to stop — IN THE MIDDLE OF THE HIGHWAY — that damn thing would call home faster than shit and likely alert the authorities because the idea would be there was at the very least a near-miss accident. The best option the crooks would have at that point would be to swap the trailer to another rig and high-tail it out of there, which would be exponentially more difficult without the means to move the tractor away from the trailer. Again, in the middle of a damn highway.

          I have a 30-minute one-way freeway commute every day and truckers are the most dangerous and asshole-ish drivers on the roads. As the long as the programmers and system designers aren’t assholes, I’d gladly welcome this change.

        2. Pull in front of it have an rf jammmer stop it from calling home and then reprogram it to drive to a location where you can off load the cargo at your liesure or just swap out the tractor.
          Some theives willl even hijack them remotely.

          1. @ John Smith
            It wouldn’t take that much equipment may just a few grand worth including a drone to drop something on the satellite uplink antenna.
            But since nobody gets hurt there’s no worry about assault charges and those pesky feelings of remorse to make you loose sleep at night.

      2. Trucks now could have any size tanks, but the more you haul with you the more you’re simply burning away (fuel burned just carrying other fuel). Keep in mind that 100 gallons of diesel weighs 700 lbs, and current trucks already have a couple hundred gallons.

      1. Nah, lets go for in-transit refuelling!
        Given the fuel tankers will also be autonomous, they could just hook-up enroute and refuel without the need to stop until they get to their destination.
        If there are any spills or sparks then it’ll act as a secondary to the weapon system :-)

          1. Planes travel in straight lines, so do ships. Adjusting for slight deviations in relative position is difficult enough when the joined parties are on the same course and heading. It’s different animal when the road turns. Easier for 2 planes to match at 500mph and 2 ships that displace 60Ktons+ to be a few dozen yards apart. Its even easier for a helicopter and a ship to keep lined up than 2 vehicles on the road. There’s no drastic deviation in heading, no obstacles to avoid, no one else around, and plenty of vectors to choose that don’t involve a collision should things go wrong.

    2. Well fueling stations can be established along the way. I think that’s a logistical problem that can be solved. As for security, I think vehicle / highway safety is a part of the police’s job. Though I have to say I’m no expert in highway crimes and transport protection.

      1. That isn’t how police work. Troopers are occasionally assigned to protect specific targets when and where they are needed, but are generally required to patrol all their state’s roads. One stretch of road may see a trooper on it about 0.1% of the time or less. Hijacking a robot truck simply has to be done at a point in time and space where the troopers aren’t present.

        Therefore, a truck is exposed to attack along its entire route. In order to secure the contents of the truck from hijackers, the security has to travel with the truck for 100% of its journey. I am opposed to spending my limited tax dollars to hire enough security to protect every robot truck on the roads. That’s the responsibility of the shipper, not the taxpayer.

        1. (Just to complete the thought, that means we’d need about 1000 times more police than we have today. In other words, I’ve solved the problem of creating jobs for all those unemployed truck drivers!)

        2. That isn’t how police work either. Their primary function is, and is supposed to be, investigation. Once used as a ‘security force’, they become militarized and we have all the problems we see with innocent people being killed by police, and impoverished people’s lives ruined from constant harassment and bullshit fines and such. A criminal gang that goes around robbing trucks does so until they are stopped. Once they are stopped all of the crimes they would have commited will also be stopped. It’s not difficult to understand proper policing.

      2. automated police drones are coming weather we like or not :P
        Who’s to say that they won’t follow the same path as military drones? Armed drones would come sooner or later…

    3. Trucks can have enough diesel on board to go twice round the country. A lot of European long distance trucks you’ll see 1000L (1 ton) tanks slung under, they can fill up in whichever country is cheapest as they pass through and run from one end of the continent to the other and home again.

      As an automated truck, if one drop on your route is a friendly refuelling station you’re sorted. Most likely their home depot would have a refuelling rig that tops them up before they set off.

  3. Automating oceanic freight would have the beneficial side effect of making it more resilient against another carbon-based threat, namely piracy. It’s hard to commandeer a freighter when there aren’t any manual controls or crewmen to threaten.

    1. As an added bonus if they ever made it to the automated control system, they would likely be identified as a thermal anomaly by the automated fire suppression systems. Cue the halon.

      1. Halon destroyed the ozone layer, so they haven’t used that in decades. Now, since it’s unmanned, it’d be CO2. Halon isn’t dangerous to life at fire-suppresion concentration, CO2 is!

          1. The Montreal Protocol of 1994 banned the production of halons altogether, with no exceptions. If a new server farm has actual halon, the tanks were bought used and already full of product. But even that’s unlikely, because once halons were no longer being produced, the U.S. Navy (and probably other navies) started buying all the old halon systems they could for refilling the fire suppression systems in submarines and aircraft, where it’s the least toxic fire suppressing chemical they could use in a fully self-contained environment. Supposedly they had enough halon in reserve to last until 2030.

            They have developed some alternative compounds, but they’re not drop-in replacements for halon and retrofitting ships and aircraft with different fire suppression systems is expensive.

            You can get more details from this 1997 paper on “Fire Suppression Substitutes and Alternatives to Halon for U.S. Navy Applications”

            ( And I seem to recall our computer operations people completely replaced our company’s halon system in the 1990s for no net cost. The entire amount was recouped by selling the old tanks of halon. )

    2. Just cripple the ship’s propulsion by having a fishing trawler drag a cable with some floats attached to it in front of the cargo ship so it runs over it and gets tangled in the props.
      Besides they probably could have automated ships before you were even born as they’re big enough you could put an old school mainframe on one and sometimes they did but they still have crews to deal with repairs and unforeseen problems cropping up.
      Plus a hardware or software failure could result in a ship plowing full speed into something.
      No crew there’s no way to shut down the engines.

      1. Most modern container ships are highly automated and have surprisingly small crews. If you look at the number of containers moved per man it is huge compared to trucking thus the labor costs are far lower. In other words there is no good reason for crewless ships.

    3. I love this argument. Some geek thinks by automating something it improves security, it doesn’t. Often you just made it easier for people to steal.

      You board the robot ship with a skeleton crew of experienced men and you’ll have under the pirates control in a matter of a hour or so. .

      And given how scare maritime security really is in many critical areas, you’ll see transports stolen and reflagged in record numbers. There are places in the South China seas that are already rife with piracy to the point where ships are simply stolen and reflagged. Yes cargo ships are already prize targets,

      1. it doesn’t automatically make it more secure but neither does humans, they introduce a whole other set of attack vectors, just as unmanned systems have their own Achilles heel.

        in truth a lot of ship traffic is running under what is essentially an autopilot to begin with, they even have automatic anti collision detection and avoidance under specified rulesets, maritime law provides some fairly straight forward guidelines and there are plenty of standards and support systems for automation already.

        in essence we are already at the supervised automation stage, progress only means increasing the degree of automation, not adding it.

        maintenance and security will without a doubt be the last to go.

      1. Spoken like someone from the Old Country. Countries like the US, China, and Russia are very large with huge expanses criss-crossed by massive obstacles in terrain. Roads are -the- most efficient transport mechanisms to send freight around these countries.

        By making the freight hauling trucks ( *cough* “lorries” ) more efficient, more automated you effectively create “road trains” that work quite well.

        1. Yup, that was a give away. :) All valid points for the US, Australia, Russia and most places but the UK has such a ubiquitous rail network there really is no need for anything bigger than 15 tons.

          1. ^had

            You can go up and down the country, and you can go to London,


            Looks good don’t it, but while you can be in London in a couple or three hours from nearly anywhere in England, the number of changes and waits for connections severely break it as a real way of getting around from places on one mainline to places on another mainline. Freight doesn’t care I guess, it can do 3 times the miles up and down to make the same miles across at twice the efficiency per mile.

            I’ll let you break the news to Tesco et al… “Oh hi, yeah, know you’re busy in the run up to Christmas and all, but we’re not going to let you have those big arctics any more, so from three deliveries a day you’re going to need 10 in little cube trucks, and yeah, they won’t line up with your loading docks, and you can’t unload them with forklifts, but hey, some eco-Tsar has thought that 10 cube trucks getting 8mpg is better than 3 artics getting 7mpg… “

      2. Sure, but if you had those automated container port transporters as fully autonomous railcars.. they’d tranverse the country in groups, no need for a locomotive, just for some central panto-graph to have long-range power, each car with it’s own battery for 50 miles or so for moving about locally..

  4. “assisted driving ” >> “self driving ”
    Preserves jobs, reduce the number of crashes and is far less prone to be hacked.
    It’s been proved a long time ago that modern cars can be hacked even from remote. I really don ‘t fancy the idea of an hacked lorry doing 90 mph just because someone needed a faster delivery of his new smartphone.

    1. the cars that can be easily hacked and turned off are the ones with people in them….
      if they were entirely autonomous there might actually be some proper security inplemented, which in turn might just make your people carrier safer as well.

  5. Pretty much all personel now present on a modern cargo ship is there for one single purpose. Maintenance. All they do strip paint, sandblast, paint, clean filters and maintain/replace parts. All jobs that take longer than the average container ship spends in port and can be done just as efficiently underway at sea. So at most you could make some captains and first officers redundant. The rest are needed to keep the ship sailing as much as possible and out of dry dock. On top of that container fires and spills are a regular thing. A crew on board can save and/or salvage a lot of cargo that might be lost on an autonomous ship if a fire rages out of control or a dock worker missed a twistlock on a container

  6. I like the idea of semi-autonomous convoys (platoons) before going to fully autonomous trucks.

    Like the 2 convoys, with 3 trucks each, that went from Sweden to the Netherlands some 8 months ago.
    The trucks were linked to the truck in front, and kept a distance of 11 meters, to save fuel and minimize how much space they used on the freeway.

    1. This is brilliant for long-haul static routes, like between cities or manufacturing centres or ports. In fact, once you had a long enough set of trucks, you could even build dedicated roads for these vehicles. You could almost start calling it “trains”.

      But it is a great idea. The trucks could even have a display of how many trucks are in the convoy so that human drivers know what to expect.

      1. They were all equipped with adaptive cruise control, and I think that they would maintain the legal safety distance (otherwise just the 11 meters) if a normal car were to go in between two of the trucks.
        They are only supposed to be autonomous on the freeway, so drivers should be picked up before entering a city.

  7. I think this article unfortunately shows how many people think about technology in the early 21st century. We get very excited by the fact that we are capable of this type of technology, and we do not stop to think about what the real goal or outcomes will be.

    If we automate the entire trucking industry, it’s true that there will be fewer fatalities, goods will be cheaper, and the roads will be calmer to drive on. But consider for a moment what trucking is in the United States in 2016.

    Here’s a map of the most common job per state. See that? That’s nearly 30 states where trucking is the most common occupation.

    That’s more than 3.5 MILLION people. That’s only professional drivers too. Not counting people who do it part time, or are not registered with a union, or who work on trucks or other supporting jobs.

    To put this in perspective, 2.6 jobs were lost in 2008 during the recession. Remember that? Remember how it was the number one topic of new coverage for more than 2 years?

    Now consider the knock-on effects. Much of middle american small towns are propped up by the trucking industry. Truck stops, diners, motels, hotels, and all manner of roadside support businesses. Those go too. I’ll wager there are going to be hundreds of newly minted ghost towns dotting the US. Do you think the traffic of holiday roadtrippers is enough to support a gas station in the middle of the Mojave desert? Do you think truck stops will survive on people visiting family over Christmas?

    I do agree that self-driving cars and trucks are a fantastic move away from the death and rage that driving brings to human life, but these things are not one-dimensional problems. Right now the money that goes into the economy of goods gets spread out into many different hands, from warehouse workers to truckers and shop assistants. If we wipe out human truck drivers, the vendors will still have to pay for shipping. Sure it will likely be cheaper, but where does that money go now? All the spoils will go to the 4-5 giant corporations that own shipping fleets.

    We win physical safety and temporary technical wonderment, but at what cost?

    I think this single technological disruption has the potential to be completely devastating to a very large portion of America, and if we have seen anything in the past 2 weeks, those angry economically displaced people can destabilize things in a huge way. Right now there’s angst about wages not rising with the rest of the economy. Now imagine how people will feel when their entire towns cease to be viable.

    Do you really want to live that future?

      1. Keep in mind a fully automated transport system willl be much more suceptable to disruptions caused by natural and man made disasters.
        A Carrington classs CME for example would shut down alll automated transport even though normally something like a truck would be immune as the wires are to short to get high currents induced.
        But things like gps and the internet will be knocked out maybe for months.
        What would be a bad situation becomes even worse esp if it happens after the old skill set is lost and trucks no longer have physical controls.
        Thinking about this senario makes me understand what some astrophysists ment when they say we may be slowly marching towards a catastrope.

    1. Don’t worry, this driverless thing is mostly hype, like IoT. Once people start getting killed often by autonomous vehicles, it will die a fast and litigious death. I mean we had airplane autopilots for many years, and still we need 2 pilots per passenger plane. As others pointed out, truck driver is not there to drive only, he has many other tasks.

      1. Bullshit. People have already died to ‘autonomous’ (actually semi-autonomous, but joe public doesn’t actually care about that) vehicles and… we got a couple news articles and it’s forgotten already.

          1. And yet, Tesla cars don’t have (any more than usual) sky high insurance. And that’s with the shittiest autonomous mode that will ever be legal on the road. If I had a couple million/billion to set it up, I would absolutely start insuring autonomous cars. No monkeying around with age of the driver or past driving record, just nice statistical data of the entire fleet with this software? You could set premiums exactly right and adjust them to new data easily.

          2. Exactly. In fact insurance costs for manually driven vehicles will likely go through the roof once there is a certain density of autonomous vehicles on the road and that, more than anything else, will accelerate adoption of the latter.

      2. > I mean we had airplane autopilots for many years, and still we need 2 pilots per passenger plane.

        There hasn’t been a fatal crash of a US flagged large jet since 2002. I think the automation and training are working pretty damn well.

        But your argument is a fallacy. The auto-pilots in planes are NOT autonomous navigation. All they do is hold altitude and or heading. You can use VNAV to similarly hold an ascend/descent rate, but even the newest jetliners are not running on autonomous navigation. Recall the depressurization incidents where the pilots died and the planes flew on in a straight line until fuel exhaustion. The pilots are still handling take off/landing/navigation.

    2. Some hard questions will have to be asked about work. Not so much the “what”, but the “why” both in the context of the individual, but society at large. As well as population control as it pertains to “too many people, too few jobs”.

    3. So i suppose, you are still using candles to light your home, because of all the candlemakers who lose their jobs to that evil “electricty” ?
      Are you still using horse carriges because this damn’ loud “automobiles” are destroying all the jobs assosiated with horses ?

      Do you really want to live in that past ?

    4. Self-driving doesn’t have to mean sans-human. The act of checking into a distribution warehouse, overseeing the trailer loading, and making sure that weight scale and other procedures are followed could still be a human job. But not you don’t have to do the biggest mind-numbing (and arguably dangerous) part which is trying to stay 100% alert at the wheel.

      Sure, this technology is a threat to trucking jobs and this risk needs to be addressed by society. But advocating against the technological advancement for that reason is something that should have happened before the industrial revolution. Our society is now built on seeking out and adopting the best technologies.

      1. … but don’t you agree there’s a lot of hype around the whole “self-driving” thing, how great it will be etc etc, without any regard for the cost of rollout, the affordability (personal and social), and what it means to be putting more cars on the road, not less?

        I’m all for the technical challenge (and so are the manufacturers; they smell money!!!) and yes let’s make driving safer, but let’s also cast an eye on the implications of widespread adoption. The case for commercial use is more obvious; but widespread adoption of self-driving personal vehicles for daily commuting and errands would be nuts.

        In town, transit or bike. Otherwise, we still drive stick, enjoy twisty, scenic secondary highways, and I hope to be dead before self-driving cars are the norm.

        1. in truth the true revolution wont come just form the fact that they can drive themselves, sure that is the key, but with autonomous cars one could conceivably cut down on the amount of cars total, it would be much easier to share a vehicle in a family since it could drive itself to the next one who needs it, some would forego owning a car entirely, with the logistics being fairly cheap (no person to pay) one can have subscription services for cars, push a button and x minutes after you have a car, even better have a little foresight and order the car for when you need it.

          many of the benefits would even work in cars where no manned autonomous driving happened, a logistics + module for your car.

    5. One thing will stop it – lawsuits. The first time one of these robot trucks kills some driver or pedestrian, The lawyers will sue the trucking company and the company that automated the truck out of existence.

    6. If you fear a future like that you have a problem with how society currently shares the gains of technological and productivity gains through automation.
      If that is so, you need to educate yourself more why this is happening and then you will see the status quo is not the solution but just the ongoing suffering of an decades old problem.
      Humanity will have to face this problem, it’s not stoppable.
      And if you don’t want to live in such a future I really suggest you move in with the Amish.

    1. haha good one… but I’m sure they will last forever as long as you just don’t update the software… haha…
      Though seriously I can see the benefits of self driving trucks and I never actually thought about it until this article. And I’m sure that these developments continue but will take most likely 2 decades to be accepted if they were available today. Laws about liability need to be changed or adapted, laws about vehicle approval, new trucks will horribly fail taking many lives causing discussion and this will slow the whole thing down, etc.

      What I find very interesting is that there are still many many trains that are driven by a person and not by a computer. There are computer driven trains/trams or subway systems… but not all. While these systems are perfectly suited for automation, the’ve been so for the past 30 years. A train track has no sudden problems like pedestrians or bicycles or a car braking in front of you. Even steering or planning your route is many times less complicated then with a truck. So the self driving truck is more complicated then a train, so you would assume that the train will be first and with all technology that could exists today… but that still hasn’t happened. Why?

      1. As someone who works for a railroad, I can tell you that trains very frequently encounter pedestrians, cyclists and cars on the tracks.

        To my knowledge, most of the Class 1 freight carriers in North America have some form of automated train control available in newer locomotives. The automated control that my company uses is fairly effective at managing a train’s speed until situations that require the use of airbrakes occur. If airbrakes have to be used the automation relinquishes control to the human engineer.

  8. It’s called a rail-road. Trains always have the right of way, don’t have to steer or stop except at the end.

    Yes, the OTTO, after a long digitization, probably precision GPS, and a police escort.
    These trucks will be more fun to hack that the IoT devices.

    Oh, and when it gets cold, trucks need to add chains to get over hills and remove them on the far side. And you don’t have the controlled conditions, the Trucks will either be very expensive or have severe blind spots.

    And there’s runaway truck ramps because brakes can fail on steep grades, I wonder if they will test for that.

  9. Just what we need. We have enough inattentive drivers on the road already, we sure as heck don’t need 40 ton trucks with no driver whatsoever! Anyone who has ever witnessed a computer crash should know that this sort of thing is about as stupid as it gets.
    I’ve got nothing against safety systems helping to make up for human limitations, but replacing the human entirely is so asinine that I can’t believe that anyone could possibly think it was a good idea!

    1. you do know about redundancy right?

      many would cite the fact that human error is the primary reason for automotive accidents, with several computers in most modern vehicles shouldnt they be the culprit if your assertion was true? at least say, half the time?

      or could it be that we really can make computers as safe as any human could ever hope to be?

  10. RoboTrucks are the way to go, but they also need to be electric and near silent so they can operate at night when the roads are almost empty, to maximise the use of the road system. If they don’t run at night they will not be competitive in the face of growing congestion taxes etc.

    At first they will only be viable for large loads between businesses and not for domestic deliveries. Domestic deliveries require every dwelling to have a secure drop-box that an automated system can interact with reliably. Without these measures, plus the resolution unsolved security problems, domestic deliveries will be subject to high levels of theft.

    Garbage collection is a more likely candidate for automation, and again operating silently at night. Failure to implement silent machines will see disgruntled people sabotage them by placing pressure sensitive incendiary devices in garbage bins. The reason they are more likely to do this (or commit the above mentioned theft) is that the absence of a human operator will shift their ethical frame of reference toward self interest.

    i.e. There are also a lot of “soft” issues that must be solved if this technology is to be a success.

      1. Perhaps, but only if responders are seen to respond in a timely manner, otherwise people will just hide their appearance and location so that they can commit the offence without being linked to it. As for the garbage truck sabotage, that does not need to be done near your location, so long as it is on the run for that vehicle it serves the same purpose.

  11. If the train is the best case to fully automate, why still are eyeballs looking at speed limits and other old tech sending hundreds to die at a time. been in the news a lot lately!
    Let’s see the rail system get fully automated first. That’s for sure. Then we’ll know better what’s up on the road.
    Signs at crossings in the south of town… No train horn—locomotives are unattended may move at any time. Or something like that, anyway people wanted sleep and quiet in their homes. Once in a while some train driver blasts the whole area with his Wagnerian horn section and doesn’t know it’s a quiet zone with federal sanctioned crossings. The eyes have it, not ears.
    I would be thrilled if Trump would get rid of backup beepers. You are responsable when backing up and making a loud CYA noise that is heard for blocks should be illegal instead. Oh, and that new one that electric cars have to make additional noise when moving slow.

      1. He just pointed it out, didn’t say it was bad. ;-)

        And as has been written earlier, this time it’s a little different, unless you can tell the audience what all these people should do instead to earn their bread & butter?

  12. I’ve always thought that autonomous cars would be a bit of a car-jacking risk as the software can’t react to that – you could block it in & rob the occupant and the car will sit there and allow it because it would be unsafe driving to try and ram its way out of trouble.

    Now apply that logic to trucks, which can be carrying hundreds of thousands of monies worth of merchandise (regardless that the truck itself costs about 100k) and you’ve got a shitstorm of truck jacking going on. My uncle used to drive containerloads of cigarettes from the docks, they wouldn’t even stop for police cars as they were such a target – they had a card to hold up that basically said “If you’re a real police officer, I’m going to drive to the nearest police station and we can talk there”.

    Still, at least no truck driver is going to be beaten up or killed to get to his cargo, so that’s a plus.

    1. I’d imagine if the autonomous truck was blocked in, it would report immediately to its base station (or call centre overseas) where the human operator would step in, and using vision from the vehicle, try and resolve the situation.
      For insurance and accident reporting purposes these trucks would be covered in many cameras front to back and top to bottom.

    1. HAHAHAA yeah don’t lose any sleep over it, with large chunks of the US still in cellular blind spots fully autonomous long haul navigation is impossible.
      Imagine anything going over the Rocky Mountains, there are so many dead zones there that sending an unmanned vehicle is just ASKING to be robbed.
      Also this presumes that everyone can agree on one way to identify traffic controls, clearances, road grades and weight limits to the truck-drones.
      Even if you manage to set up a system for getting things from one major region to another delivery is no easy matter, or in trucker terms, there is a reason east coast miles pay better.
      Throw in refueling, pre-trip inspections, trailer cleaning, load securing, load balancing, unloading, lumper selection, paperwork and straight up asking where the heck the dock is, nobody is going to be losing any jobs any time soon.
      Source: Husband of a Compliance Administrator for 12+ years.

      1. Silly question – and how exactly does a human driver not get robbed in this situation?

        There will always be a need for some kind of operator, it’s just that it will probably end up like large planes – pilots mostly just push buttons and/or turn knobs and then sit back and enjoy the view, only the landing, takeoff and non-standard situations are times when the autopilot gets turned off and human hands start touching the controls.

        Me thinks that this will be the way, ever more capable autopilots, so the drivers will be pushed out very slowly with enough time for the ecosystem to adapt, like it has before…

    2. If you’re over 40 you shouldn’t worry too much.
      But you might need to retire early or will be getting the job of the ‘last mile’ as surveilance/monitor/manual driver.
      Any younger than that and I’d be seriously looking at doing something else.

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