They said autonomous trucks were years away from replacing drivers, but a pair of developments this past month I’m sure put the fear in some naysayers.
Pretty much everyone I talk to in the industry is adamant that drivers will continue to be needed in the trucking industry, and I tend to agree with that sentiment. I don’t see trucks going down the highways throughout North America and navigating metro areas on their own any time soon.
However, the news that Suncor Energy will add to its nine Komatsu ore-hauling driverless trucks, employing a fleet of 150 over the next six years at the company’s oilsands operation in Fort McMurray could be sign that the automation movement might happen sooner rather than later.
I tried to contact Suncor to ask about its decision to go down the autonomous path, but surprising to few I’m sure, I was not successful in my efforts.
Suncor’s use of automated trucks is expected to result in the loss of approximately 400 jobs with the company, and is not limited to drivers.
If you’re thinking that automation in the mining and oilfield sectors has been occurring for some time now and this doesn’t apply to over-the-road, there was another story of late.
San Francisco technology company Embark partnered with Peterbilt to complete a run with a tractor-trailer from Los Angeles, Calif. to Jacksonville, Fla.
The truck was completely autonomous while traveling on the freeway. Drivers were in the cab in the event of an emergency and to take over when using interstate entrance and exit lanes and while within municipalities.
This is pretty much exactly what many believe autonomous will look like when it hits the trucking industry – driverless while on the highway, but always with a human being in the cab.
Besides the argument that the roads would be safer with autonomous vehicles, I’m not sure what else this would bring the industry and its carriers. Companies would still need to pay the “driver” while they are in the cab, and boredom will plague more operators as they sit in the cab staring at their smartphones or out the window. I’m sure Facebook would be happy with the spike in user time.
In addition to these examples, there are countless companies looking to develop autonomous truck technology.
Sure, driving in perfect weather conditions in the Southern U.S. is very different from in the north and in Canada. I get that.
There is a societal acceptance and legislative approval process that needs to happen before 80,000-lb. trucks can careen down the road with no one at the wheel. I get that, too.
And like the issues that hinder electric and alternative fuel technologies, namely a lack of infrastructure and continued improvements in performance for some applications, autonomous faces the same concerns.
But it keeps getting better…and it does so at a rapid pace, which is the point I’m trying to make.
It seems every month or so there is a major announcement from a truck or engine manufacturer, or technology company that inches each effort closer to the finish line.
I certainly can see why industry professionals would push back on autonomous trucks – and I agree. Who would want a computer to take away the jobs of thousands of drivers?
But computers have been taking jobs away – and in some instances, adding – from people for decades now.
Why would the trucking industry be any different?
A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media industry as an editor, reporter and now as editor of Truck West. I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.
@DerekClouthier All posts by Derek Clouthier