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Drivers Still Needed

But autonomous technology is making strides more and more

By:  David Heller, CDS

If your family is anything like mine, then holiday gifts for the kids will include lots of electronic devices like tablets, phones, and laptops. And these products are no longer for adults only—young children are using this technology every day as we continue to progress into a more technologically savvy society.

Because the items are so commonplace these days, we tend to forget that at the drop of a hat, they could be hacked and the lives of their owners drastically changed. Little Johnny or Suzy could be using your credit card to make an in-app purchase for a game, and suddenly your bank account is drained. What about paying a bill online and having your identity stolen? How about phone cameras being turned on remotely to record and spy on users?

If the smart electronics and programs that we use every day are constantly under threat of being maliciously hacked, will smart vehicles be next? Just as electronics are getting smarter, passenger and commercial vehicles are following closely behind.

Here in Washington, DC, you can’t throw a stone without hitting on a conver¬sation about autonomous vehicles (AVs). Legislation like the AV START Act (S.1885), which was recently passed in the Senate, lays out guidelines for testing and producing autonomous passenger vehicles. Oddly, however, commercial vehicles were left out of the language at the last minute.

While industry groups like the Truckload Carriers Association are hoping for a bill that will give commercial vehicles the same guidance, there is still some hesitation with legislators and the public. Imagine seeing an autonomous 53-ft. commercial truck in your neighborhood. Most folks would not be too happy about that. The negative public perception of commercial trucks is giving D.C. heartburn when even considering AV technology.

Legislators and the public need to understand that trucks are getting smarter, and technology is evolving to help professional drivers get the job done safely and efficiently. Trucking companies big and small are already investing in technology like adaptive cruise control, blind spot monitoring, and vehicle-to-vehicle communication. As to technology, we are miles ahead of where we were just a few short years ago.

When I think of an autonomous vehicle, my mind goes straight to airplanes. Autopilot has been around since 1914, but it has never been truly autonomous. There is always a pilot sitting in the cockpit ready to manually fly the plane. The autopilot feature was invented to assist pilots and allow them to focus on other aspects of flying while assisting in controlling the trajectory. Would you feel comfortable walking onto a plane and not seeing a pilot? I know I wouldn’t. The same goes for commercial AVs. Technology that will allow the driver to focus on other tasks or situations while on the road will make our highways safer and make the motoring public feel more at ease.

At this point in time, autonomous commercial vehicles present more questions than answers. When it comes to commercial vehicles, in particular, there are many questions that could have a major impact on how we see our nation’s highways and how interstate commerce is carried out, e.g., cyber¬security and safety of passenger vehicles sharing the road.

Many have seen the Tesla, Uber, and Mercedes AVs that are being tested. Have you noticed that there is always a seat and a steering wheel in the cab? My point is that there will always be the need for a professional truck driver to operate commercial AVs. The technology, which is focused on assisting rather than replacing the driver, will be the biggest realization to lawmakers in D.C. and tech groups in Silicon Valley.

Even the thought of a completely driverless truck makes people nervous enough not to offer solid legislation on the issue. The possibility of hacking trucks is a legitimate concern, but the industry needs to have the opportunity to test technology that may help combat the issue.

Perhaps by this time next year, we will have some answers to our many questions on what autonomous vehicles in trucking will look like. Until then, we will continue to support the development of driver-assist technology to make our nation’s highways safer.

December 2017