The future is closer than you might think. For years, autonomous semi trucks have been an exciting technology that seemed just over the horizon. In 2022, however, they’re making a very tangible foray into the real world. A number of companies, including TuSimple, Alphabet, Aurora, and Kodiak Robotics have been testing self-driving trucks on real Texas highways. The success of these tests has many wondering about the future of jobs in trucking. As of now, a shortage of truckers leaves the United States wanting nearly 60,000 additional truck drivers. Autonomous semis will help fill this gap along simple routes in mild weather – for now. A study from the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon suggests that up to 94% of human operator hours could be eliminated by autonomous trucks in the not-so-distant future, costing up to 500,000 human jobs.
Barriers to Implementation
Autonomous vehicles live in a complex legal world. Regulations vary state by state, meaning that a truck that’s legal to operate independently in Arizona might not be legal in California. As of now, 44 states allow the testing of autonomous semi-trucks and 26 allow their commercial deployment. The software on trucks has to conform to local laws regarding ethics and safety. Germany, for example, recently passed a series of AI ethics laws that require self-driving vehicles to ignore the physical characteristics of humans when making life-or-death decisions. This means any trucks deployed in Germany must use software that’s specially designed to disregard factors like skin tone, height, hair, and number of limbs when making decisions. A system designed for another country might prioritize saving the individual who better fits the system’s model of a human to avoid accidentally conserving the life of an oddly shaped tree or a granite statue.
Driving is an inherently dangerous activity. In 2019, over 4,000 people were killed in accidents involving large trucks. AI driving promises to be safer on average, as artificial drivers will never get tired or distracted, but it’s only a matter of time before an autonomous semi is involved in an accident. While the Texas roads that these trucks are being tested on are very straight, boring, and uneventful, it’s not impossible for that first accident to happen before the end of the year. When that happens, the victims will need an experienced Houston semi accident attorney to navigate the new legal waters involved in getting appropriate compensation from the truck’s operators, designers, and programmers.
Part of the reason that Texas has served as a hotbed for testing is the state’s predictable, warm weather. As of now, AI systems struggle to deal with bad weather, meaning that routes in northern states will likely be driven by humans for a few more years. Additionally, not all routes are as simple as the long stretches of Texas highway between El Paso and Fort Worth. While companies like TuSimple and Aurora promise tech that automates a full route from start to finish, it’s likely that we’ll see systems that automate the middle section of a route much sooner. The truckers of 2023 might be expected to only drive on surface streets near their routes beginning and end, with the AI handling the freeway driving in between.
A Changing Future
Autonomous semi trucks promise to increase the reliability and efficiency of freight over the coming years. As of now, a few routes in southern states are the focus of intense testing and pilot programs from a number of companies, including Alphabet, Aurora, TuSimple, and Kodiak Robotics. As AI trucking expands beyond these few routes, up to 500,000 operator jobs might be replaced by robot driving systems. This change will be far from instant. In addition to a complex web of state laws governing self-driving vehicles, AI trucks must navigate complex moral problems, avoid accidents on roads with distracted human drivers, and struggle with complex surface streets and bad weather.
There’s no simple, fast solution to all of these problems. Instead, we’ll have to wait patiently as technology improves and work with partial solutions like partially autonomous trucks that only work on a few specific routes in good weather. AI trucking is definitely here to stay, but it’s not clear what final form this emerging technology will take.