By Graham Johnson
If you ever feel uncomfortable traveling next to a big rig semi, imagine what it will be like when there’s no one driving it.
Driverless trucks are advancing quickly, and they could revolutionize how companies move all the stuff we buy.
Several companies are working on autonomous truck technology, including Uber, Waymo, and PACCAR, which is based in Bellevue.
“The computer doesn’t get drowsy, the computer knows exactly the mapping,” said Bruce Agnew of the think tank Cascadia Center who leads the CES Northwest Network, which advocates for automated, connected, electric and shared vehicles.
He predicts driverless trucks will move freight efficiently and safely, because automated vehicles will largely avoid crashes.
“When you have a jackknifed truck on the interstate in downtown Seattle, you’ve blocked the entire system,” Agnew said. “So we look forward to a day when those kinds of accidents involving cars and trucks are a thing of the past.”
The techology is moving quickly.
“The industry people tell us it is five to ten years away,” Agnew said.
Tests underway now on public roads include a driver in the cab.
Some companies, including Uber, have posted videos envisioning keeping human drivers to bring loads out of a city.
Those trailers then switch to autonomous trucks for long hauls on rural interstates.
“This is not a sector you want to get into planning a 40-year career but in the near term there’s plenty that drivers do that is not necessarily ready to be automated,” said Don MacKenzie, a transportation researcher at the University of Washington.
Some automation is designed to make trucks with drivers safer and more efficient.
Platooning is one example, where computer-connected trucks form a kind of train on the highway.
“If they become a platoon, you know army marching, I can put my trucks really close to each other, bam bam bam bam, a lead truck that would certainly have a human driver,” said Barbara Ivanov, director of the Urban Freight Lab at the University of Washington.
In a platoon, drivers in the trucks behind can take their hands off the wheel and get a little rest.
If a car cuts in to the line, the trucks automatically provide more space.
Platooning trucks running in dedicated lanes, or during off-hours, could keep them from mixing with regular traffic.
Truck driver Cathy Whalen is skeptical a computer could ever safely drive a truck and handle all her duties.
“Who’s going to chain up the truck when it’s ‘chains required’?” Whalen asked.
Someone might ride along for tasks like that, and there might be new positions created in warehouses or elsewhere in the supply chain.
But, eventually, the road to automation will likely leave many truck drivers behind.”You’re taking away jobs, you’re taking away jobs from people who could sure use them,” Whalen said.