Autonomous Semi Tractors

I don’t know if anyone here watched 60 Minutes last night. One of the segments discussed autonomous big rigs. I was amazed at how far along the technology has come, and the current amount of testing being done on public roads. An executive of one manufacturer expects to have a few in revenue service in 2021! What’s everyone’s thoughts about this?

When the technology is good enough, it will be fine, and too bad for people in the truck driving profession. Buggy whip makers are obsolete now also.

They estimate eventual job losses to total 800,000.

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There might be a great demand for heavy wrecker drivers in the near future though.


My thoughts about this are:

  1. Robots do not pay taxes, shop in local businesses, pay rent (or buy houses), buy groceries, send their kids to school, vote in elections, support charitable organizations, etc. For every job lost to automation, which results in a person becoming unemployable, we can expect higher rates of poverty, higher crime rates, higher drug addiction rates, etc–all of which end up costing society way more than the wages from the lost job.
  2. The first time one of these autonomous vehicles is involved in an accident, attorneys will be eager to sink their teeth into the company which manufactured it, as well as the company which owns and operates it. Especially if the accident in question could have been easily avoided by a live human driver. Sure, companies like “saving money” on payroll, and laying off their employees…but if settling lawsuits becomes more expensive than hiring human drivers, companies will hesitate to adopt this technology.

It will be a bib money saver for trucking companies that operate terminal to terminal with road drivers and then pickup and deliver freight with city drivers. No point to replacing the city driver with an expensive robot if you still need him in the truck to make the delivery or pickup.
Truckload carriers or owner operators could utilize them to do the driving between cities while the driver slept depending on how the DOT let them log those hours.

However they are further from being ready because everything I have read says they are a long way from being able to handle snowstorms or ice.

Personally I think this is a little optimistic and I can’t believe there wouldn’t be a need for a driver on board, so I remain a skeptic. They would be able to run non-stop though without the 10 hour break, so in that sense it could be more economical. As far as job losses, sure we have been automating things for over a hundred years, and what do ya know, we have more jobs now than before. At a different level is all. Automation gives us lots of things, but I’m just not sure truck drivers should be the target. Gee if they can’t automate a locomotive on tracks . . .

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That is the claim every time this kind of disruption happens. It is generally wrong. Yes, it eliminates truck driver jobs but it creates other kinds of jobs. Some lower wage, some higher wage. Reduced trucking costs reduced the price of everything we buy since everything comes to us in a truck of some sort.

I saw something a couple years ago about truckers driving in a whiteout in Alaska. They were testing a radar system that looked for guard rails IIRC. The report was promising. There was no discussion about replacing drivers, just augmenting them with the radar system.

As good as the technology might seem to be in typical driving situations, one of the drivers who was interviewed mentioned that she had come upon a road accident a few days previously, and that there was a State Trooper directing traffic with hand signals.

Her question was something along the lines of…
How is the robot going to understand hand directions in a case like this?
I think that this is a very good point to ponder.

In any event, here is that excellent segment from Sixty Minutes:

Consider for second facial recognition software. It can determine your identity with very small variations in features. Recognizing hand signals from a policemen directing traffic should be possible with camera systems.

Autonomous vehicles need several different kinds of sensors to be able to identify everything they need to control the truck. LIDAR doesn’t work well with rain. Neither do ultrasonic sensors. Vision and radar systems work pretty well in those situations. Vision systems identify pedestrians very well with good software and fast computers.

Blending and making sense of the sensor suite data is critical to these systems.

That’s just trucking jobs. The overall job impact could be in the millions.

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Probably still needs more work…but the technology is already here.

How would an autonomous car handle a traffic light that for whatever reason go’s from a fully functioning light to a flashing light that is treated as a four way stop?

How do you do it? It sees a flashing light…and is programmed to know what that means.

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Thank you I was thinking about the hand signal’s as there is different way’s of using hand signal’s for one I have seen stop as a open palm or a closed fist also how about a flashing yellow light as a caution instead of a stop?

I’m damn sure they’re not programmed to recognize just ONE type of hand signal. Just like their not programmed to recognize one type of traffic light.

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Thank you I am not smart enough to understand how computer’s and the new tech work.

Most aren’t. Been a software engineer for over 45 years. BS in computer science and MS in applied mathematics…and I barely know the basics of how it works. It would take me months to do a deep dive into the programming to get a good understanding of it. This is extremely complicated engineering and math. If this tech was around 20 years ago I’d have switched careers to work on it. But I hope to retire next year or year after next.


I feel for the truck drivers, and not just because I used to be one.

I know there are a lot of truck drivers who drive a truck because it’s what they love to do, but there are also a lot of truck drivers who do the job because it’s all they know how to do (sort of like coal miners). Those are the ones I really feel bad for. A lot of them can be retrained for other jobs, but there is a segment of the population that won’t be able to transition into another job.

The thing that bothers me about this is that it won’t make the roads all that much safer. Professional truck drivers are involved in such a low percentage of collisions, and they cause such a low percentage of collisions that it’s obvious this isn’t about safety; it’s all about saving money at the expense of the workers.

In terms of improving safety by automating driving, the biggest bang per buck would be to automate driving for passenger vehicles, which tend to have the worst untrained or poorly-trained drivers, not commercial trucks, which tend to have highly-trained professionals who operate their rigs safely.

Unsafe truck drivers never last; they get weeded out of the profession fairly quickly because there is little room for error. However, an unsafe driver of a personal vehicle can be on the road for decades, and as long as unsafe drivers can pay high insurance rates and keep from getting their licenses suspended, they can go on wreaking havoc.