Two weeks ago in this space I was moaning and groaning about all the robot cars and trucks that are going to be the next big thing coming down the pike. I was kvetching mainly about the safety factor of all those two-ton sedans — not to mention 40-ton big rigs — zooming around, even if they’re guided by the latest and best technology. I just don’t trust the technology to keep them from sending me and my little car to kingdom come.
But there’s another reason to dread this paradise that’s being prepared for us: If it’s so great, and so inevitable, then why does it need to be so heavily hyped by the giant companies that are promoting it? That’s the fishy part — why are they pushing it so hard, when the general public isn’t demanding it?
Well, follow the money. There must be 3 or 4 million people in this country who make their living by driving — bus and taxi drivers, and others, but a lot of them are long-haul truckers. Trucking alone is a $700 billion industry, and a big chunk of that loot goes to paying the drivers.
Now we’re talking. Robot cars may eventually become safer than human-guided cars, and people may even, someday, learn to trust them to sail safely down the highway while mom, dad and the kids play canasta or stare at their phones. But robot trucks are where the big money will be found — that is, when vast numbers of truck drivers lose what is one of the last jobs in this country (since so much manufacturing has flown overseas) that pays well even if you don’t have a college degree. Getting rid of even half of those human drivers will save big shippers big bucks. And since robots don’t need to sleep or eat, those rigs will be able to spend much more of each day in motion, making money for big trucking companies and their big customers.
It gets worse: Not only will millions of truck drivers be out of work, but so will millions more people who own or run or work at the truck stops, roadside cafes and motels that line our highways. And all the other local businesses that the former truck drivers and the former waitresses and the former motel maids used to frequent will suffer too.
Now, it may be that the sensors and cameras and computers that go into an autonomous 18-wheeler will never be up to maneuvering in heavy traffic, so there may still be some jobs for human drivers after the robot trucks leave the highway, which is a much simpler environment for them to navigate. But we’re still talking about a big loss of well-paying jobs.
They’re already testing a “convoy” system that uses a human to drive the lead truck while a second, robotic, truck follows close behind, receiving wireless guidance from the lead truck. This early system already it eliminates half of the drivers. Get rid of the drivers, and trucking costs go down substantially. And that’s called progress.
Could it be that we’re going nowhere too fast? (I stole that line from L. Ford.)
Reach Glenn Richter at firstname.lastname@example.org.