By Alan Dean Foster
Tesla, which is leading the way in the development of autonomous cars, is not alone in that endeavor. Over the course of the past couple of years, it seems like everyone has jumped on that bandwagon. Not only auto manufacturers but companies like Google, Waymo, Nvidia, Qualcomm, and many more are working feverishly to perfect the technology that will allow you to text freely in your car without risking a citation — not to mention watch a movie, nosh a burrito, chat with your Aunt Bernice about her latest operation, and turn around to yell at the kids without pancaking into the nearest brick wall. But the media has been so focused on the development of autonomous driving for cars that they often overlook equally if not more important applications of the same technology.
Autonomous buses. Autonomous trollies. Autonomous trains. And the wholesale transformation of the trucking industry.
When the media does discuss such applications, the reportage is usually slathered with a soupçon of woe lamenting the number of jobs that will be affected by such changes. Take the trucking industry. What will all those soon to be out-of-work truckers do? Truckers can make pretty good money. On the other hand, the hours are terrible, the stress is unrelenting, a normal home life is impossible, in certain states and along certain routes the attention of the local highway patrol can make life miserable, the weather is frequently uncooperative, and unless one is inclined to a life of hermitage, the loneliness can become dangerously oppressive. Which brings me to an article titled “Trucker Shortage Affecting Grocery Store Prices” (CBS Investigates: Jan. 22, 2018). That’s right …all those truckers who are going to lose their jobs apparently don’t exist. To quote from the article:
“Transportation brokers estimate there are 1,500 trucks sitting in Nogales right now because they don’t have drivers.
‘I have announced my job openings in newspapers, on Craigslist. We have job fairs,’ said Jim Watson, who runs local trucking company JSJ Enterprises. ‘I think I’ve had one application.'”
Setting aside the situation of all those folks who complain there are no jobs, given this predicament, I think Mr. Watson and his colleagues and competitors would be delighted to have access to a fleet of autonomous trucks. All of the problems I alluded to that afflict human drivers disappear when the occupant of the cab blinks and beeps and doesn’t drift off while listening to country music. Autonomous trucks will not string out on white crosses, will work 24-7 without complaint, will not unionize, will not need to take bathroom breaks, will not be responsible for family breakups, and will comply without an endless flow of muttered harsh language to any request put forth by a highway patrol officer or customs official.
Furthermore, if Tesla and a few others have their way, all such rigs will be electric. That means they’ll be able to operate in metropolitan areas currently off-limits to trucks now because of noise or pollution restrictions. Tesla has promised trucks with 300 and 500-mile ranges while pulling an 82,000 lb load (if you’re interested in learning more, you can go to Tesla.Com/Semi). And no, I’m not selling trucks, nor do I own stock in the company.
Right now, operators like JSJ Enterprises have to utilize Mexican truckers due to the lack of available drivers in the U.S. Through no fault of their own, these drivers have to go directly from their place of origin in Mexico to their U.S. destinations. They can’t, for example, stop in Nogales to pick up produce for delivery to Arizona grocery stores. There’ll be no reason to place such restrictions on autonomous big rigs. Computers that work in Mexico work just fine in the U.S., and vice versa (side note: “vice versa” in Spanish is “viceversa”).
If there’s a possible downside to this future, it’s that smugglers will also utilize autonomous trucks because if they’re stopped at customs and found to contain contraband, the smugglers lose a truck and its cargo but no driver. You can’t bargain for amnesty with a computer and it won’t rat out its owner. Customs won’t merely need more officers: They’re going to need some with computer savvy. Unless, of course, our robots end up grilling their robots.
I know it all sounds like an episode of “Futurama,” but we’re very near to it becoming reality. GM has even shown a prototype of a car with no steering wheel. And an autonomous cab won’t try to charge you $863 for a ride from JFK to downtown Manhattan. It will also likely be equipped with instantaneous translation, so that when you climb into a taxi anywhere in the world it will understand you.
True, some things may be lost in the changeover. For example, nobody can swear more colorfully than Moscow cab drivers. I’ll trade that for an honest fare to my destination.
Alan Dean Foster is author of more than 120 books, visitor to more than 100 countries, and still frustrated by the human species. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster.Com.