Self Driving Cars — or Trucks?

Self-driving cars haven’t been making the kind of progress people expected. This might be about the nature of cars, though. Arstechnica points out that the problem with self-driving cars is the people.

People take up space, and so do the airbags they need. Their luggage, too. They also want to get where they’re going fast.

Groceries don’t cause these problems. So Kroger grocery stores are approaching self-driving grocery delivery with confidence. They’ll be rolling out autonomous vehicle delivery in one city to test it. The makers of the vehicles plan to get their trucks up to 35 miles an hour so they can travel on streets in residential neighborhoods rather than on sidewalks.

Sidewalks have people issues. Autonomous delivery vehicles carrying pizzas to people’s homes have to bring human minders along to make sure they don’t run into people. Sometimes they scare people, even without contact. And sometimes people are so charmed by these delivery bots that they interfere with the process.

Delivery vehicles that travel on public roads should be a different story. “In the long run,” says Arstechnica, “we could see retail stores gradually transform from destinations for human shoppers into warehouses for loading autonomous vehicles.”

Autonomous trucks already

Warehouses are already using a much higher level of automation than most other environments. Self-driving vehicles are working well at ports and airports. Autonomous freight trucks are even being run experimentally, with human safety drivers leading convoys of self-driving trucks. The U.S. Department of Transportation said last fall that it will “no longer assume” that truck drivers are human beings.

Entrepreneur Jay Yang claims that autonomous trucks could save so much in fuel and avoidable accidents that the shift should happen immediately. However, truck driving is the most common job in 29 states. It’s the kind of job that should be taken over by automation: dangerous,  bad for the workers’ health, and tough on work-life balance. But it’s also a job that would be missed if automation took it over.

Truck drivers typically don’t have many other employment options. The loss of these routine jobs could have more impact on the economy than the changes in factory automation have had.

On the other hand, ATBS sees these tech changes as an evolution in the job of truck driver. Truck drivers, they figure, will be like pilots. They won’t spend their time driving, but companies like Tesla, Waymo, and Daimler are planning to have human drivers in their vehicles.

The real autonomous freight delivery may be little grocery vans tootling slowly through your neighborhood.

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