Popular Science brings a 1970s science-fiction dream one step closer to reality with news that Uber Freight is ready to put robot truckers on the highway:
Uber, the technology company (which, because of its ride-hailing app, functions a lot like a transportation company) launched Uber Freight on Monday night. The minimalist website features a gentle clip, filmed from above, of an 18-wheeler driving on a green hillside. There’s a place for carriers and shippers to give their email addresses to Uber, and links for media to contact the company. It doesn’t reveal much.
Fortunately, we already know a little about Uber’s freight launch, because its first autonomous truck delivered a load of cargo last week.
[Note: this actually happened in October, and was posted here.]
Licensing requirements kept humans in the driver’s seat in Uber’s self-driving cars, and certified commercial vehicle operators may be needed to monitor and manage paperwork for self-driving trucks.
One possible future sees humans crewing the first vehicle in a trucking convoy, with autonomous robots following the human-piloted leader. The United States Army is already testing a robot convoy system like this for operating in theater. In Europe and Nevada, robot trucks have convoyed together, creating uncomfortably close chains of vehicles, relying on computer coordination instead of following distance for safety.
In the immediate future, autonomous trucks will need human drivers and human engineers to design them—both growth opportunities. After the development of the technology, where will it go? If regulation is what keeps commercially licensed drivers in truck cabins, regulation could just as easily transfer that control to remote drivers in an office somewhere, who monitor the mostly-autonomous vehicles online. Interstates, the vast network of American highways that facilitate both commercial trucking and family roadtrips, could become commercial-only avenues with the open road left to autonomous vehicles instead. Instead of piloting trucks, the role of humans on board could shift to providing security, which is both a Fast and the Furious plot device and also part of the reason why the military wants to automate its own shipping.