On Driverless Trucks

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For reasons that are not immediately apparent, much of the Canadian business press appears to be drinking the Tesla Kool-Aid and imagining that the ascendancy of driverless trucks is not only inevitable but imminent. One factor is the "vicious competition" driving the North American trucking industry, which is estimated to be five times larger than the smart-phone industry. In Canada alone, an estimated 300,000 jobs would be rendered obsolete if trucks were fully automated—a sea change in our national economy, given that the transportation sector is now the leading employer of Canadian men. Another is that Transport Minister Marc Garneau has already visited Tesla headquarters, presumably to gauge the hype for himself in advance of his department's promised January 2018 report on the future of automated commercial vehicles.

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Driverless-truck mania hinges on three related claims. The first is that robotic vehicles will be less expensive to produce, operate and insure, making them both more cost-effective and more profitable. The second is that, because driverless trucks are already in use at remote resource-extraction sites, the transition to their general use is really just a matter of perfecting the technology. The third and most contentious claim is that driverless trucks will be safer than those bearing human drivers. The upshot for driverless-tech boosters is that we're so close to the transportation revolution that little remains but to brace for it.

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One person who doesn't buy any of this is veteran British transport journalist Christian Wolmar. "Let’s face it, we’re talking about a technology that will never happen," says Wolmar. "The hype is being driven by carmakers, desperate to lay claim to the future, and tech giants, who have all this footloose capital that they don’t know what to do with. In fact, most of the driverless-car experiments we read about are actually cars containing drivers who can take over in an emergency." The best-case scenario, according to Wolmar, is analogous to the pilot/autopilot relationship that underwrites the safety of commercial air travel. "Drivers probably avoid 1,000 different accidents every mile," he observes. "You judge things. Our eyes are an incredible asset. The first animal that developed eyes came 350 million years ago, and it took most of that time to develop these sophisticated eyes of ours. The computers are nowhere near doing that. And the artificial intelligence of computers is still binary."

Wolmar is right. Most truckers driving today won't live to see any Canadian government license fully automated 18-wheelers for use on our commuter-clogged, snow-bound thoroughfares. The distance between the human-driven status quo and our much-prophesied driverless future may look like a short haul but, in fact, we have miles and miles of winding road ahead.