Welcome to the Robo-truck Era

So here we are in February 2019. In a new story this morning, I learned that FL highways are now a test ground for the use of robo–trucks – autonomous tractor trailers. While this is not new – there have been robo-trucks used by TuSimple in Arizona during 2018 hauling commercial loads  with plans to increase its fleet to 40 in 2019 according to a Forbes magazine article. This news story made me stop and think a little more about what is happening here.

“Driverless” trucks can run around-the-clock without having to stop for sleep, eating or any other reason other than fuel, between destinations. There would be robot_car-1no salaries – though for now there is a driver just in case to avoid a mishap – the idea being that eventually there would be no human in the cab. (Of course the Unions are against this approach citing potential safety issues, not to mention how many drivers would be displaced.) Additionally, there is focus on robo-delivery vans – smaller scale vehicles – used to transport commercial goods as well.

While we are nearing the Era of driverless vehicles of all types, planes, trains (?), and automobiles, there is still the Chaos Theory to consider. For those unfamiliar with Chaos Theory, (Jeff Goldblum explained it well in the first Jurassic Park movie), it deals with things that are pretty much impossible to predict or control. For example, wind turbulence, severe weather, volatility in the stock market, and for discussion in this post, humans.

The concept and now adoption of driverless vehicles, whether truck, car, plane, or any other type of vehicle, must be able to sense, predict, and act in accordance to the situation at hand. The unpredictability of human actions – quick lane changes, pedestrians stepping out into traffic, etc. are all factors that must be considered and vehicle programs designed to predict and address. In a pervious post I talked about a driverless vehicle that struck and killed a robot. (Neither knew the other was there.)

This leads to a discussion of ethics and decision-making by the vehicle. Let’s say a plane carrying 150 passengers has catastrophic engine failure. Options include turning back, land at another airport, or land in a river. (Sound familiar?) If you saw the movie Sully, the computer simulations could not account for the existing conditions and the simulator pilots were trained to react to the program. When alll of this was changed to a closer simulation of the reality the crew had faced – Chaos Theory – Sully made the right decision.

Are robovehicles coming? Yes. Are we really ready for them, no. Will they make a difference? Yes, once the infrastructure is in place, and the human factor is no longer a consideration. The question now is, at what pioint in time do all of these elements align?

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