For The Long Haul, Self-Driving Trucks May Pave The Way Before Cars

Oct 13, 2016

Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of attention lately: Uber's self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla's semi-autonomous Model S and the driverless Google rides that look like a cross between a Cozy Coupe and a golf cart. But quietly and without much fanfare, researchers and entrepreneurs are working on self-driving trucks — big rigs, tractor trailers.

Trucker Rusty Todd has heard a bit about them. He paused to consider a future of self-driving trucks while taking a break at a truck stop in Jessup, Md. "Well then, I'm going to be without a job," Todd said with a laugh.

He's joking. Kinda, sorta. Todd's not worried about losing his job to a robot driver anytime soon. But he said what he's hearing about self-driving trucks makes him a bit nervous.

" 'Cause not all systems are perfect. I mean not all computers are perfect," Todd said. "They're doing it with the cars, yeah, I can agree with that 'cause a car doesn't weigh as much as these things do. These things are heavy."

Todd's right that self-driving cars can be seen here and there, but the big shift to self-driving vehicles may happen first on America's interstates, in big rigs, not in fancy electric cars.

"It could likely be that it would happen en masse faster in trucks than it would in cars," says Alain Kornhauser.

Kornhauser, who heads the Autonomous Vehicle Engineering program at Princeton University, says long-haul trucks are well suited for self-driving technology. Trucks log most of their miles on highways, where the lanes are well marked, where the roadways are smooth and where there are no pedestrians, no bicyclists and no kids playing ball.

"The self-driving is easy," Kornhauser says.

Kornhauser says he expects to see plenty of self-driving trucks within a decade. But he points out that self-driving doesn't mean driverless. It's likely a trucker will still be in the cab, probably in the driver's seat, ready to take control if something goes wrong. He thinks this change will make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful.

"They can have all sorts of screens in front of them to do whatever things they need to do," Kornhauser said. "And instead of being stuck in some cubicle in some building with no windows to look out, they have a perfect view of the world as they're traveling down the road."

Kornhauser is optimistic about the future of self-driving trucks, which makes sense since he has a company that's working on automation for trucks. His company, along with others working to develop this technology, are sending the same message to truckers: The jobs will be less dangerous and won't go away.

That's the foreseeable future, but eventually, the technology that makes them safer could make truckers' jobs obsolete.

Fred Rush has been a trucker for two years and he's enjoying life on the road.

During a trip hauling a load of yogurt from Tucumcari, N.M., to Allentown, Pa., Rush, 30, spoke with NPR. He said he likes the job because he gets to travel a lot — something he didn't do much before.

"I've seen every state now," he said. "Every time I finish a load I have no idea where I'm going next. It keeps things different."

Rush is watching the automation of driving with mixed emotions.

"I'm all for it. It'd save lives, it'd save pollution. Wouldn't be a lot of wasted time, but it would suck," Rush said. "I really think I'm probably one of the last generations of truckers. I don't think it will be around for my kids or my grandkids, but fun to try it while it's still here."

And just in case the driverless future arrives sooner than expected, Rush said he's thinking about a plan B. Maybe something in computers, like information technology. Those jobs are safe, right?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The ride-hailing company Uber is testing out self-driving taxis on the streets of Pittsburgh, and you can find self-driving cars on some Silicon Valley campuses. But as NPR's Uri Berliner reports when it comes to more autonomous driving, these cars are just part of the story.

URI BERLINER, BYLINE: OK. You know about self-driving cars. What about self-driving trucks, tractor trailers, big rigs?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Self-driving...

RUSTY TODD: Yeah, yeah. Well, then I'm going to be without a job (laughter).

BERLINER: That's Rusty Todd, a trucker I met at a truck stop Jessup, Md., outside of Baltimore. Todd's joking - kind of, sort of. He's not worried about losing his job to a robot driver anytime soon, but what he's hearing about self-driving trucks makes him a bit nervous.

TODD: Guys, not all systems are perfect. I mean, not all computers are perfect. They're doing it with the cars. Yeah, I can agree with that 'cause car doesn't weigh as much as these things do. These things are heavy.

BERLINER: Todd's right about the self-driving cars you see here and there, but the big shift to self-driving vehicles may happen first on America's interstates in big rigs, not in fancy electric cars.

ALAIN KORNHAUSER: It could likely be that it would happen en masse faster in trucks than they would in cars.

BERLINER: Alan corn Houser heads the Autonomous Vehicle Engineering program at Princeton. He says long haul trucks are well suited for self-driving technology. Trucks logged most of their miles on the highways, and on highways...

KORNHAUSER: ...The self-driving is easy.

BERLINER: Easy because highways are pretty orderly. The lanes are well-marked. The roadways are smooth. No pedestrians or bicycles. No kids playing ball. Kornhauser expects we'll see plenty of self-driving trucks within a decade, but he says that doesn't mean driverless. A trucker will still be in the cab, probably in the driver's seat, ready to take control if something goes wrong. And he thinks it'll make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful.

KORNHAUSER: They can have all sorts of screens in front of them to do whatever things they need to do. And instead of being stuck in some cubicle in some building with no windows to look out, they have a perfect view of the world as they're traveling down the road.

BERLINER: Kornheiser is optimistic about this future, which makes sense because he has a company working on automation for trucks. And the other companies developing this technology are all sending the same message. Truckers, your jobs will be less dangerous, and they won't go away, at least for the foreseeable future. But the technology that makes them safer could eventually make truckers obsolete.

FRED RUSH: I'm Fred Rush. I'm currently in Tucumcari, N.M. I've got a little bit of yogurt going to Allentown, Pa.

BERLINER: Rush is 30, and he's been a trucker for two years. He's enjoying life on the road.

RUSH: So far I like it a lot.

RUSH: What do you like about it?

RUSH: I never got to travel too much. I've seen every state now, and every time I've finished a load, I have no idea where I'm going next. It keeps things different.

BERLINER: Rush is watching the automation of driving with mixed emotions.

RUSH: I'm all for it. I mean, it'd save lives. It'd save pollution, you know. It wouldn't be a lot of wasted time. But it would suck. I really think I'm probably one of the last generations of truckers. I don't think it'll be around for my kids or my grandkids, but fun to try it while it's still here.

BERLINER: Just in case the driverless future arrives sooner than expected, he's thinking about plan B - maybe something in computers like IT. Those jobs are safe, right? Uri Berliner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.