Putting the metal to the metal

By Bill Hudgins, columnist

The first “Terminator” flick contained one of the best chase scenes in movie history as Ahnold, as the cyborg assassin from 2029, commandeers a gasoline tanker and chases the hero and heroine.

The truck blows up, of course, and burns the Terminator down to his apparently indestructible metal skeleton. But like Timex, he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

Great science fiction – a robot that can drive a semi – right?

Right. Meet Atlas, a 6-foot-2-inch, 330-pound robot developed by the U.S. agency DARPA – the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency – which is tasked with developing new technologies for the military.

Atlas, or at least its descendants, is being perfected to do tough, potentially dangerous jobs – and trucking perennially ranks high on the risky business list.

In December, DARPA was to award a contract to program Atlas to do a number of tasks, including driving a vehicle, using hoses, opening and closing valves, and climbing ladders. Sounds like a cast-iron concrete cowboy to me.

I wonder if shippers would have robotic forklifts and lumpers or, as they do now, just try to strong-arm Atlas into humping the load?

Picture this: The robotic foreman – call it a Dock Administrator Vehicle Expediter, or DAVE – tells Atlas to fingerprint the load. I can just imagine our wired wheelholder scanning the dock foreman’s ID plate and replying, “I’m sorry, Dave, I can’t do that.”

In reality, we’re a long way away from Atlas climbing into a rig (but when it happens, please let it be a Kenworth T800).

But robotic, self-driving trucks are already rolling.

Caterpillar has fielded a fleet of 700-ton Caterpillar 797 mining trucks, programmed by Carnegie Mellon scientists, at a mine in Australia. The behemoths lumber happily along with 240-ton loads of rock, never taking a tea break or coming in hung over on Mondays.

Caterpillar isn’t alone, and it wasn’t even first – Komatsu developed automated mining trucks before Big Yellow.

Of course, a mine in the Aussie Outback is a far simpler driving environment than the Eisenhower Expressway. But the potential payoff is so huge that you can bet your GPS there will be robotic trucks in America’s future.

The big money has placed its bets on rolling out robot trucks ASAP. As The Wall Street Journal put it in an article last July, “An idle truck with a sleeping driver is, after all, just a depreciating asset.”

Volvo’s car division already is helping bring that future to us. In November, Volvo announced that it plans to turn 100 driverless cars loose in the automotive giant’s hometown of Gothenberg, Sweden, in 2017.

The vehicles will use cameras, GPS devices and sensors to monitor traffic and compute the correct response to conditions. Which means they will be immediately distinguishable from cars with humans in control.

Volvo’s CEO Håkan Samuelsson said the development of driverless cars would make auto travel safer and easier on people. Though I have to wonder if people will still have to jam their knees against the steering wheel in order to shave, apply makeup, or finish styling their hair while their Volvo takes them to work.

Seriously, this will be one of the first large-scale tests of self-driving vehicles in an urban environment. The results will help improve the technology and, the developers hope, persuade people that a robot vehicle is safe and practical.

At this point, self-driving vehicles are basically computers on wheels. They don’t even have an inflatable “Auto Pilot” like the one in the classic movie “Airplane!”

And if they could talk to each other, would they echo the narrator of Red Simpson’s song, “I’m a Truck”? The line, “There’d be no truck drivers if it wasn’t for us trucks,” takes on kind of a sinister tone in this robotic rig future.

There is one bright spot, though. This movement could revive the legendary “AutoCar” nameplate, which would take on a whole new meaning. LL