The (Inevitable) Great Robo-Truck Robbery

robo-truck robbery

There has been a lot of talk recently about self-driving trucks and how they’re going to put (as one estimate has it) at least 3.5 million people out of a job.

My step-father was a trucker, and some of my early memories are of going on trips here and there with him. Raised in the rural southeast US, I remember how exciting it was to go on a trip to NYC, sitting up there in the big cab, delivering a trailer-load of furniture to some store. That was over forty years ago, and all I can recall now is the general feeling of excitement when we arrived in the big city. But all we really saw was the loading dock, a bunch of truck-stops, and miles and miles of mind-numbing road along the way. I did get to keep a huge, ten-foot diameter rubber band, used to hold the plastic cover on a sofa. When I got home, my friend Deon and I turned an apple tree into the biggest slingshot EVER!

But I digress. Point is, I don’t lack sympathy for the soon-to-be imperiled truck drivers of this great nation. Many armchair futurists seem to feel that once the robo-trucks are deployed, it’s all over for the these humble folk. In their worn-out Peterbilt caps and oily overhauls, they’ll be standing in the welfare lines like so many other victims to the evil rise of technology…

Sorry, but I call bullshit on that.

Punto Numero Uno

No one who has half a brain just gives up when their job function has been eliminated….

Fired on Mars on Vimeo.

Seriously, were fire or the wheel bad for mankind? Err, nope. They changed us, but arguably we’re better off for it. Now, imagine a future where 95% of the traffic on the highway is automated. Robot vehicles never nod off or drive drunk, and their Lidar eyes have no blind spots. Consider all the lives that will be saved. All the horrific and costly accidents that won’t occur due to sleepy, distracted, or angry drivers. Won’t that be nice? 

NHTSA’s Fatal Analysis Reporting System (FARS) figures for 2014 show 32,675 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2014, a 0.1-percent decrease from the previous year. The fatality rate fell to a record-low of 1.07 deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. But estimates for the first six months of 2015 show a troubling increase in the number of fatalities. The 2015 fatality estimate is up 8.1 percent from the same period last year.

On a personal note, I just spent the last twelve or so years riding the wave of Adobe Flex technology. As a developer, I got in on the ground floor when it first came out. I learned how to make it sing, and as more and more huge companies adopted it for building complex applications, I was there to help them achieve their goals with it. It was the longest hang-ten I ever pulled off.

But then, the wave crashed.

My last client, Morgan Stanley, an international investment bank, appropriately dubbed their migration from Flex to HTML5 the “Flexit” (a play on “Brexit“, of course). Here, an operation with millions of dollars invested in the technology was, like myself and everyone else involved in Flex, facing a major crisis. Adobe Flash (which Flex requires) is no longer viable.

For years, the Internet echo chamber has reverberated with the cries of “Flash Must Die.” Finally it did. For three years, I helped Morgan Stanley transition to HTML and JavaScript (tech I’ve forked the sign of the evil-eye at for over a decade) and found out it’s not so bad now. When I finished with that gig, I took a retraining sabbatical, spending the last six months on a community-serving HTML5 app of my own, and now I’m ready to engage another client.

Even though I’m fifty years old, I didn’t give up, shut down my company, draw unemployment, and cuss Obama. I reinvented myself. Sure, I’m still a software architect, but believe me, there’s a lot to learn to become proficient in another technology silo’s idioms an best practices. And if self-coding websites were to suddenly put me totally out of a job, I’d go back to running a climbing gym. Whether you’re 18 or 80, the world is full of people you can help. You just have to find them and do it.

Punto Numero Dos

These robo-trucks may be able to drive themselves, but can they defend their cargo against attackers?

I doubt it.

Robotic self-protection measures will be way more difficult to implement (not to mention fraught with legal issues) than watching out for ducks or bicyclists in the road.

But what about the drivers? I say, give them a shotgun and let them sit in the passenger seat. Because those trucks are going to need protection.

Highway robbery used to be a thing, right? Just like train robberies (when trains were slow enough that horses could keep up). If all the trucks are robots, then what’s to stop a gang from laying a tire-spiking kit across the road, waiting for the truck, and when its tires blow out and it pulls over to the side, descending upon the trailer and making off with the goods? It’s just too easy.

Federal Signal’s Stinger Spike System on YouTube

The former driver is now a security guard, a passenger with plenty of time to spend in online courses if he or she wants to find another job. They also function as the backup driver if anything goes wonky with the robot system. We all know it’ll be many years before delivery companies are comfortable operating a fleet of self-driving trucks with no human on-hand if something goes wrong. It’s not just a matter of whether the robots can make it from Point A to Point B.

So, IMHO, STFU about all the soon-to-be out-of-work truckers with no other option than food-stamps. It’s not going to happen. Firstly, stop being so reductionist and give them enough credit as self-improving human beings. Secondly, realize that it’s not like you can just erase people from the commercial transport equation as soon as a truck can make it from LA to Manhattan on its own. Until situation-aware Terminator robots come cheaper than burly men with shotguns, there’ll always be a spot in the cab for a human.

Plus, even if they aren’t set upon by highwaymen, these trucks will get flats on their own. They’ll have engine trouble. What happens today when these things occur? The trucker gets out his tools and tries to fix the problem. If he can’t, then he’ll call for a local mechanic, but mostly he does it himself. So in a robo-truck, even if the trucker is reading a paperback most of the time instead of driving, he’s still indispensable until repair robots become cheaper.

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