You don’t have to look hard to find online stories discussing the future of self-driving vehicles. Whether it’s marveling over Tesla’s first-to-market technology or debates as to liability in the event of a crash, there’s no shortage of news fodder on the subject.
Yet, when it comes to infrastructure aspects, logistics and economic impact, few sources do more than scratch the surface. The problem is, no one can truly predict the future — and this is definitely futuristic. From Google to Apple, many forward-thinking corporate entities are looking to carve out their piece of the proverbial pie that is self-driving technology. But few are uttering words like “regulation” at this early stage, except for the CEO of FedEx Freight, Michael Ducker.
It makes sense, as trucking is a $700 billion industry in the U.S., with more than 70 percent of goods being transported over our Nation’s roads each year. Thus, in a recent interview with the Financial Times, the leader of one of the largest shipping companies in the U.S. voiced his opinion that it’s not technology holding up this revolution, but regulation and social acceptance.
Ducker ideally sees a level of federal regulation much like that found with aviation. This would include a standardized certification process, routine inspections and nationwide guidelines and restrictions. This would be an attempt to avoid state-to-state issues that many cross-country haulers deal with today.
Many are looking for the U.S. Department of Transportation to issue guidelines concerning self-driving trucks later this year, following in the footsteps of similar guidelines issued last year for self-driving cars and other passenger vehicles.
Unlike rideshare industry leader, Uber — who is currently testing driverless vehicles in several cities — Ducker doesn’t see self-driving technology as a reason to remove the driver completely. Referring again to the aeronautic industry, he outlines a scenario akin to how pilots utilize autopilot for most of the flight, but humans are responsible for take-offs and landings in addition to continual monitoring. The relationship can be symbiotic, as experienced drivers are needed for tight maneuvering at many delivery points, while self-driving through the night on open stretches of highway can give the driver much needed rest — a human requirement that has hampered the efficiency of the industry since its inception.
Another issue that seems to get overlooked when new technologies are tossed about, is that of financial feasibility. Can the trucking industry afford to upgrade equipment, adopt new technology and still employ drivers at some level? Do self-driving trucks even begin to combat many of the other issues facing the freight-hauling industry (many of which I discussed in a past blog on big data and trucker safety)? Again I say that no one can predict the future, and only time will tell as to when and how we integrate such new technologies into an industry that truly drives our economy.