Autonomous Trucks and the Human Factor

by Pride Transport | Nov 06, 2018

Woody Allen tells a joke in an old stand up routine from the 60’s. He says, “My father worked for the same company for 30 years, then they found this machine that does exactly what he does only better. 30 years of work and they just let him go. The worst part, my mother immediately went out and bought one.” It’s a funny bit which I don’t do justice to here. Like most of Allen’s humor, it causes an immediate laugh due to its obvious absurdity which really masks a frightening reality. In the 60’s Allen was subtly speaking out against the rise of the machines taking the place of working men. Men who fought for this country only to be replaced by chips and screens manufactured in foreign lands.

The Man v. Machine struggle has being going on since time immemorial. English workers in 1811-16, took it upon themselves to destroy machinery that threatened their livelihoods and gave birth to the term used to describe anyone who opposes industrialization or new technology, Luddites.

But fighting against technology is more than just fighting for a job, it’s recognizing that, even if a machine does something as well, more economically, there is still a human factor that cannot be duplicated, replicated or taught to a machine. This human side is and should be a factor as we move forward with technology.


Autonomous Trucks, who’s Doing What

There are half a dozen corporations that are serious about self driving vehicles and they all have their eye on trucks. All of these corporations are way beyond basic R&D and have had self-driving trucks cross the country. Yes, this will save money for someone, put money in the pockets of others but, what about the human side?  1.8 million people, mostly men, drive heavy trucks for a living. Another 1.7 million drive taxis, buses and delivery vehicles in the United States alone. Many of these people are looking at this technology and asking what is the end game, where do humans fit in? A machine or a computer may be able to follow the rules, color within the lines however, there are many times when there needs to be color outside of the line.


Humans Behind The Wheel

Tuesday, April 25, 2018, on interstate 696 in Detroit, Michigan the very human side of being a truck driver came into play. After receiving a call for help from police, 13 drivers lined up their trucks under the overpass, blocking traffic in both directions and creating a sort if safety net. The reason, a troubled man was standing on the bridge deciding if he should end his life or not. Drivers heard the call for help and showed up. No matter where the man went on the overpass, beneath him, a foot or so away, was a truck. If he jumped, he would survive with only bruises. Eventually, police talked him down and got him help.

Those drivers colored outside the lines and brought humanity to a very tense situation.

A human truck driver named John McKown, who quit a job as a Police officer and started driving trucks, tells a story of how he encountered the horrific problem of human trafficking and sex slavery while on the road. His story, shared in a brief but very moving Ted Talk, is a call to action. He learned that there are approximately 293,000 children at risk for enslavement on America’s highways. He got training at Truckers Against Trafficking and learned how to spot the subtle signs of trafficking and sex slavery. Now, when he goes to truck stop, he has eyes open and he looks at the lot in a very different way. It’s John’s crusade, as a driver, to stop trafficking and sex slavery on the highways of this country. True, an automated truck doesn’t need to use a rest stop but, I can imagine there are thousands of parents, friends, family members who have had children saved from this horrific lifestyle, that are happy a human was behind the wheel of a truck and that human stopped when they did.

These are just two examples of the hundreds of stories about truckers, the unsung heroes of the highways, making decisions, saving lives, being human when only a human could do the job.


Technology With a Dose of Reality

The reality is, even the best technology is not going to make human drivers obsolete. Highway driving can certainly be handled by autonomous driving systems but, the back roads, the tiny turns that drivers are often faced with when going dock to dock, will never be handled by a machine. One of the leaders in the autonomous technology, Uber, does not believe that self-driving trucks will ever be doing dock to dock runs. They firmly believe in the theory that autonomous trucks will handle highway driving but, they will need a human driver to take trucks the final legs of the journey. Uber sees self-driving trucks as complimenting human drivers, not replacing them.


More Work Not Less

The worry for truckers is that self-driving trucks are incredibly successful and impactful and this is a very real possibility. However, this could actually lead to more work rather than less.

If self driving trucks are used more efficiently, it would naturally drive down the cost of freight, which would, in turn, stimulate demand, leading to more business. So, if more freight is out on the road and human drivers are required in order to get that freight around local areas, there will be greater need, not a lesser need, for truck drivers.

There have been many reports lately about the lack of drivers in the industry and that a coming recession may be triggered by the inability for freight to be moved around the country due to this current driver depletion. In the very near future, truck drivers, working in harmony with autonomous driver technology, could save the economy and provide better results for the freight business.

Some think faster, newer, state of the art is better and, who knows, it may be. However, man has never been able to create a machine that is capable of doing what a human does naturally or instinctively; care, think, respond emotionally and connect to humanity. Never have and truly, we never will.

Share this article