So who’s going to load the truck?

By John Bendel, editor-at-large

The Brookings Institution, the granddaddy of D.C. think tanks, says truck drivers aren’t going to be replaced any time soon. But that hasn’t discouraged big-time investment in the design, development, testing, and soon enough the deployment of autonomous truck technology.

We may get tired of hearing about it, but the march toward driverless vehicles is becoming a stampede. Every month brings a raft of fresh developments.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, bills related to autonomous vehicles are being considered in 32 states. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have actually passed laws, and the governors of Arizona and Massachusetts have issued executive orders on the subject.

Much of the self-driving development is for cars, but auto technology has a way of migrating to trucks. In California 15 different companies are testing autonomous cars, including a model with no brakes or steering wheel from Google spin-off Waymo. California had to pass a separate law to accommodate that one.

Not long ago, you could count autonomous vehicle tests on one hand. Now they’re going on all over the place, in California, Nevada, Michigan, and even – with the blessing of the city fathers – Pittsburgh, Pa. GM is hiring 1,100 people in San Francisco to work on self-driving cars. More than 50 autonomous-capable Chevy Bolts are being tested there, in Scottsdale, Ariz., and in the Detroit area.

Uber is testing more than 40 cars, mostly specially equipped Volvo SUVs, in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and in Arizona. California recently granted Apple permission to test its technology in three Lexus RX540h models.

But Uber has its problems.

In March, a self-driving Uber was in an accident that its sophisticated equipment failed to prevent. News photos show Uber’s Volvo on its side near the intersection where it was hit by a human-driven car. Meanwhile, iTech Post said leaks from the Uber program show its fleet of driverless test cars has been unable to attain an average of more than one mile without human driver intervention. According to the New York-based tech publication, bad weather and confusing lanes have made test cars “stop abruptly, hit the brakes, jerk uncontrollably, or just swerve for no good reasons.”

There’s action in the truck world as well. The states of Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania have formed what they call the Smart Belt Coalition to foster autonomous truck development. Some testing will begin this summer on the Ohio Turnpike.

Autonomous truck projects are underway at Daimler, which introduced the technology three years ago with massive press events in Magdeburg, Germany, and at the Hoover Dam in Nevada. Since then, similar projects have been announced by manufacturers Volvo, Paccar, and Navistar. Otto, now owned by Uber, introduced the idea of retrofitting autonomous devices. Recently, a startup called Embark introduced truck technology that is autonomous on the interstate and projected to be controlled remotely by someone at a computer for the last local miles.

This stuff has become so mainstream that competitors are suing each other. For example, Waymo is suing Uber which owns Otto, the company that last summer sent an autonomous truckload of Budweiser down I-85 in Colorado. Waymo claims the guy who launched Otto took technology from Waymo where he worked when it was still called Google. Uber says no way. So this may play out in a courtroom. That could delay the deployment of Otto retrofits, and Otto seems to be in a hurry.

All of these costly efforts are ultimately aimed not at assisting drivers, but at replacing them. Nothing else makes long-term economic sense. Does anyone believe big players like Daimler and Uber are investing all that money so drivers can play video games and nap behind the wheel?

But it turns out getting rid of all those expensive drivers (insert a chuckle here) won’t be all that easy. That takes us back to the Brookings Institution, that Washington think tank.

A web page titled The Avenue from Brookings’ Metropolitan Policy Program recently posted a six-page article called “Automated trucking’s rapid rise overlooks the need for skilled labor.”

In the detailed, long-winded manner of most researchers, the authors state that “truck drivers depend on a wide range of skills to carry out their jobs every day. Just as there are different types of doctors, there are different types of truck drivers. … Not surprisingly, many of these drivers are not simply sitting behind the wheel all day on auto drive. They also inspect their freight loads, fix equipment, make deliveries, and perform other non-routinized tasks.”

At the end, the article notes that “truck drivers and Silicon Valley are at odds of how, when, and where any potential labor market effects will take place …”

In other words, we don’t just drive the trucks; we load and unload them too. And neither Silicon Valley nor the Brookings Institution is likely aware that we deal with an unending string of unanticipated problems on the road, some of which even the most creative writer could not make up. LL