Fig 1: This is the workplace of the combined driver and transport manager in the truck of the future. The new Actros already makes a visual distinction between the driving and living areas. Images Courtesy of Daimler Global Media, Press Kit.
As is the case for any technological advancement, after the “oohs” and “ahhs” die down, the voices of worry and dissent come to the fore.
“Will this destroy whole industries?” “Will this alienate us from each other by creating a world of empty experiences?” “Will this steal our jobs?”
The answer to that last one depends on who you ask and which details you choose to focus on. For example, in 1957 there were 400,000 elevator operators in Manhattan. A decade later there were hardly any. The reason? Autonomous elevators knew how to ferry people up and down quicker and more efficiently than any human could. One could also look to the 1950s to see how many people were employed as bank tellers or librarians, versus these days thanks to ATM machines and Google. With autonomous cars, are drivers on the road to extinction?
While some believe driverless vehicles will completely disrupt traditional commerce, turning things like truck drivers and the $220 billion auto insurance industry into relics, others believe autonomous vehicles are coming just in time to fill a pressing need. “There are 3.5 million long-haul drivers in the US today, and there still aren’t enough,” explained Tom Green, editor-in-chief of Robotics Business Review.
Indeed, the Financial Times recently reported that the amount of freight that will be shipped via trucking is to triple between now and 2050. This is where semi-autonomous trucks like Daimler’s newly tested “Highway Pilot System” come in. The system, which proved to work quite well under good conditions in Nevada, where roads are straight and long, is something of a modern-day caravan, consisting of one manned 18-wheeler followed by three or four unmanned trucks.
The efficiencies of such a system are numerous. Because the trucks are able to keep moving 24 hours a day, they complete their routes faster. Second, because they eliminate human error, they are safer. Four thousand people a year die in collisions with big trucks, with an average of 11 fatal accidents per day. Still, it’s worth remembering that only 10-15% of truck drivers in the US are long haul, so it’s hard to make the argument that Daimler is about to put all truckers out of business any time soon. Not that it’s a bad idea for truckers to start educating themselves about how to operate trains of autonomous vehicles.
Fig 2: In the future the cab will also include a comfortable and functional working area for autonomous driving phases. Images Courtesy of Daimler Global Media, Press Kit.
“[Eventually] the drivers will have to be sophisticated enough to operate within the cab of a self-driving truck,” Green said. It’s not just the vehicle technology that has to keep on improving for autonomous transportation to become a meaningful reality; roads are going to have to change. “Maybe in the future, like they build railroads, they’ll be building twin-lane highways that go coast to coast, and only driverless trucks can be on them,” Green said. This “carpool lane” scenario for autonomous vehicles isn’t just practical and safe, the construction of these highways is going to create masses of jobs.
And it’s not just the physical highways that will need serious overhaul, the information superhighway is about to be sent into overload, with connected cars causing massive bandwidth jams if networks don’t rapidly increase capacity. This will be a boon to tech jobs. Plus, consider Moore’s Law, and the fact that entire industries will have to be set up to upgrade the electronics in cars every two years or so. There are literally millions of jobs that are going to come from this industry.
“There has been a lot of scaremongering going on,” Green said. “People are getting tired of seeing headlines that say your job is going to be taken over by a robot. History just doesn’t really bear it out.”
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