Self-driving trucks operating in Arizona, truckers fear for jobs, public safety

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Mike Mozart (Flick'r)

Autonomously operated trucks could make drivers obsolete

Ivana Venema-Nunez , Reporter

On Wednesday, self-driving trucks engaged in the world’s first network of routes between Phoenix and Tucson.

The technology company TuSimple has tested autonomous trucks with safety drivers to ensure and maintain the truck on its route in the past, but the plan is to operate completely self coordinated by next year, according to an AZ Central article

“Our ultimate goal is to have a nationwide transportation network consisting of mapped routes connecting hundreds of terminals to enable efficient, low-cost, long-haul, autonomous, freight operations,” said Cheng Lu, president of TuSimple, in a prepared statement. 

The company plans a series of phases that will be implemented by 2024 to expand the use of fully automatic trucks in 48 states.

According to the article, the first phase, covering the rest of this year and 2021, trucks will have travel routes between Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. By 2022 and 2023 services will expand to include Los Angeles and Jacksonville, Fla..  Finally, in 2023 and 2024, automatic truck operations will extend to all the other contiguous 48 states. 

According to the article, there are plans for similar networks in Europe and Asia.

Several companies like, Aurora, Daimler, Waymo and Embark Trucks are competitors who see a shift in the trucking industry to self-driving vehicles, according to a Vox article.

TuSimple’s focus is on long-haul trucking and they haven’t spent much time on self-driving cars.  One of their competitors, Waymo, plans to focus on last-minute delivery such as UPS and AutoNation.

Charlie Jatt, Waymo’s head of commercialization of trucking, shared how the company plans to move forward in the industry.

“We see ourselves as a technology company, not a trucking or fleet management company,” Jatt said, according to a transcript of the call. “We’re developing the Waymo Driver and then will partner with OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturer) to ensure that our technology can be successfully integrated on classic trucks that are being manufactured and sold to the market in the future.”

Granted, the automotive industry will have a lengthy trial period before the majority of businesses and people can safely utilize self-driving vehicles, but it appears that the technology is moving forward through usage in manufacturing, shipping, and infrastructure.

The displacement of an estimated 2 million truck driving jobs is of great concern for the near future.  Researchers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate that there are just under half a million long-haul drivers whose positions are the most vulnerable to autonomous technology, but points out that companies will still need individuals for other, trucking-related tasks, like customer service and loading, according to the Vox article.

Experts hope the new technology will offer a solution to some of the dangers of truck driving, such as long hours behind the wheel, unforgiving weather, and driving under the influence. 

Brenna Bayles, a Kansas-based driver who owns her own truck and is studying in the Pima Community College program, said that she doesn’t fear automation, despite concerns that AI could take away jobs in the industry. In fact, she wants to own a fleet of self-driving vehicles herself one day.

“The buggy-whip manufacturers didn’t want to see cars come along,” Bayles told Recode, arguing that self-driving cars will ultimately be safer and cheaper to insure. “They either get with the program and work in that field, in the capacities that they can, or they find another field, but we don’t stop progress.”

Norita Taylor, a spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association is concerned with numerous unanswered questions, like how self-driving trucks will navigate on-the-road situations typically handled by humans, like emergencies, problems with cargo and dealing with law enforcement on the road, according to the article.

“We have a lot of concern that federal regulators are going to put on blinders and push for more technology as the answer to the industry’s problems without considering the negative impacts of those technologies,” she said.