So What Happens if We Don’t Want Them? NMA E-Newsletter #581

In August 2019, 20 truckers with nine trucks held a rally at the Missouri State Capital, protesting the safety of autonomous trucks. They were there to support a bill on the drafting table by State Representative Mike Moon.

Downshift to this year’s state legislative session; Moon sponsored and introduced a bill that would require a trained person to be present in an autonomous vehicle. HB2059 would specifically forbid vehicles from being operated in automatic mode on a highway or street unless a licensed and trained person is present inside the vehicle. “The Driver” would have the ability to monitor the vehicle’s performance and take control if necessary. Even though introduced in early January, HB2059 still awaits a committee assignment.

Recently, OOIDA gave support to Moon’s bill. Government Affairs Manager Mike Matousek states that autonomous trucks (ATs) have a lot of potential, but there are many challenges as it relates to commercial haulers and safety. He noted in a recent statement:

“There are hundreds—or even thousands—of concerns that need to be addressed before a driverless vehicle of any size should be allowed to operate on public highways. Requiring a trained person to be present in an automated motor vehicle—both passenger and commercial motor vehicles—that is operating in ‘automatic mode’ is a relatively simple solution.”

The engine that churns our economy is moving goods by truck from city to city, and even across town. Without this vital transportation service, life would be rather different for most of us. The wide variety of goods we are accustomed to would not be available without truckers. CNBC reported in November 2019 that Self-Driving Trucks [are] likely to hit the Roads before Passenger Cars.

Truckers, of course, are not happy with this future scenario. Over 3.5 million professionals drive trucks in America. Add in those affiliated with the industry, and the number tops out at 8.7 million. In about half of the states, trucking and related jobs are among the most significant of professions. The disruption of the industry would wreak havoc for workers and their families.

Lowering driver overhead will likely make trucking companies more profitable. Consumers might even like the idea too because it could mean that the price of goods will go down. The question, though, on everyone’s mind, will ATs be safer?

A scenario that some advocates are putting forward seems quite simple. One driver would lead several other driverless trucks in a platooning operation on the open road. Truck platooning links two or more trucks in a convoy. These vehicles would use both connected and automated driving technology to stay in touch continually, maintain correct spacing and road speed.

Not only does this save on driver pay, but platooned trucks would also save on fuel due to less aerodynamic drag. Here is a 2018 YouTube video that shows how platooning works.

Open road platooning is one thing, but trucks still must reach their final destination, which is usually in urban areas with stop-and-go traffic. Some have suggested that in-town trucks would be “driven” by operators, much like a soldier drives a military drone. Perhaps not all truckers will be out of a job if they undertake retraining as a “driver-operator.”

Lately, many experts have been dialing back the arrival date for a Level 6 (free of any human interaction) autonomous vehicle. Lowering expectations is probably a good thing. With all the issues we currently have with infrastructure, auto and truck recalls, and cybersecurity concerns with connected vehicles, we’re not ready yet.

In the meantime, before full autonomy, AVs will have to deal with human drivers.

Car and Driver recently showcased a story about a man who was arrested for brake checking an autonomous van (and its human safety driver) in Arizona. The man was a disgruntled former employee and had exhibited road rage several times against Waymo AVs.

An extreme case maybe, but not everyone in Arizona has been enamored with autonomous vehicle testing. No longer just the purview of motorist-to-motorist encounters, road rage has now entered the autonomous zone. Guns pointed from driveways and rocks thrown at AVs are just a few of the intimidation factors the state’s safety drivers have encountered.

At the end of its road rage story, Car and Driver issued a short poll that asked one question: Do you feel hostile toward self-driving cars? You could select one of two answers:

1)  Not at all, I welcome technological advancement in all its forms.
2)  Yes, hate ‘em, but I wouldn’t try to cause a crash over it.

Which answer would you choose?

When we took the test, the results to that point were 64 percent for Answer 1 and 36 percent for Answer 2.

We might not feel hostile now, but when human drivers are driving amongst autonomous cars and platooning trucks, how will we feel then when they follow every rule of the road with no give and take? Or to put it another way, with no discretion?

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