Have you ever gone to Target and seen the parade of carts trailing behind a kid, much like a modern pied piper herding strange red creatures to their endless toil? Imagine that scenario playing out with lines of commercial trucks crisscrossing the country, a semi-robotic delivery system revolutionizing the transport of goods. It’s not that far-fetched, and likely closer than you think.
Nevada just passed an autonomous vehicle law directing the Department of Motor Vehicles to create a driver’s license endorsement for these vehicles, the first state in the nation that signals just how far this technology has progressed.
It’s no secret that the holy grail of ground transportation is to largely take the human out of the equation. We are imperfect creatures when it comes to the road. Plus, all the modern conveniences that cater to people “on the move,” from cell phones to texting to increasingly interactive media systems in automobiles that will only continue to divert our attention and degrade our collective driving skills. Why not hand over much of the burden to computers?
For years autopilot systems have eased the burden on pilots or remaining attentive on monotonous flights. Of course, there’s very little to hit 25,000 feet in the sky and many more obstacles on the ground which to consider.
The Google founders have been working on this challenge through a pet project of driverless cars for a few years (see video here), and as reported by ibtimes.com, Volkswagen is adapting many of its cruise control and lane-changing assist systems into a Temporary Auto Pilot (TAP) system that can drive in both 80 mph highway mode and bumper to bumper traffic unassisted by humans. Although Volkswagen touts it for personal transportation, I believe the commercial trucking industry that will be the first to adapt the system before it trickles down to the rest of us.
According to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI), 29 million trucks carried 68.8 % of goods in 2008, or 10.2 billion tons of freight. This represents 83.1% of the country’s freight bill. The American Trucking Association (pdf) says there are there are currently 3.5 million professional truck drivers on the road in the U.S. and pegs the cost of commercial freight at $650 billion. It’s clear there’s a huge economic incentive to drive efficiencies in the system, especially in light of volatile fuel and huge labor costs.
If we take a hint from the kid herding shopping carts, I can see the industry “daisy-chaining” multiple auto-piloted trucks monitored by one of two drivers. The benefits are obvious: more driving efficiencies with less drivers equals lower costs and less accidents. Most trucking companies already manage their fleet routes and schedules through GPS monitoring, this just takes that control one step further to robotic drivers.
I don’t know about you, but I still feel very uneasy about letting a computer fully control my car. However, after a few years of auto-piloted trucks sharing the road, I may begin to change my tune. And who wouldn’t love to get to a point where you lean back, surf the web and enjoy your in-car espresso machine traveling along at 100 mph in bumper-to-bumper traffic—brought to you by “Intel inside?”
It can’t be worse than dodging the stressed out, distracted and poorly skilled drivers we all deal with every day on the roads. Plus, with the diminished driving skills of a burgeoning aging population coming our way, robotic drivers seem the perfect, if not likely solution not that far over the horizon.
By Steve Frazier – Copywriter Jedi