Robot Truckers: Like It or Not, They're Coming

Image credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff

The term “robot” meant an anthropomorphic machine in the 1950s — best exemplified by Robbie the Robot, a bulky wheeled contraption with good intentions and bad grammar.

1980s robots: big whirling industrial spot-welders in a Japanese auto factory. They looked nothing like humans but rather like task-specific machines performing in an environment alien to humans. The heat and blinding light of welding didn't affect these robots, which also work 24/7/365.

As decades pass, robots increasingly resemble the spot-welder model more than the Robby model. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright said it best: “Form follows function.”

Functional robots

Robots embody our hopes and fears, so we fear that robot labor may supplant human endeavors in specific occupations. The problem is that robots are essentially computer-driven, and computers are glorified adding machines.

How to program self-driving robots? Start by inputting reams of data from thinking beings. The CAPTCHA thumbnail grid, which asks Netizens to select motorcycles or crosswalks, is a classic example. By leveraging the thinking power of human brains, a computer builds a database of images to parse. Enough data will create robots that can pilot a vehicle with a (hopefully) acceptable level of success.

This aggregated data slowly hones the ability of self-driving modules. But don't expect Robbie the Robot to deliver pizzas to your door. The scenario is more like an express train line: autonomous drivers run only on main routes while other vehicles (human-driven) transport within the capillary networks.

This evolution will not proceed smoothly

“Trucking companies [can] set up transfer stations at either end, where human drivers handle the tricky first leg of the trip and then hitch their cargo up to robot rigs for the tiresome middle portion,” said an article on “Another station at the exit would flip the freight back to an analog truck for delivery.”

Industry-watchers are bullish on vehicular tech. In January 2022, global product development company U+ released a report titled “Automotive Technology Innovation for 2022 and Beyond.” “One of the key trends in the auto sector is the growth of Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technology...the essential technology for autonomous vehicles as they become a more regular part of the automotive industry.”

U+ says the global automotive V2X market “grew from USD517.31 million in 2020 to USD619.42 million in 2021, and analysts expect the market to reach USD2.25 billion in 2025.”

Social issues

What about the claim that robot truckers will take human jobs? So far, few public figures have offered analysis on the long-term ramifications of self-driving trucks. But New York-based Andrew Yang, a businessman and attorney best known for his 2020 presidential campaign, makes a point of addressing changes he sees in the U.S. trucking industry that will result from automation. In 2019, Yang told Axios that he “needs a plan to manage the loss of these jobs, describing truck driving as the 'most common job in 29 states'.”

The V2X market is expected to reach USD2.25 billion in 2025

Yang used his presidential campaign to warn about the impact automation might have on the economy, saying that more auto companies are investing in autonomous vehicle technology, including those in the trucking industry. Given the U.S.'s sprawling interstate highway system, that's millions of truck drivers and millions more in ancillary industries.

Auto-driven trucks

Interest is sparking among international bodies. “The World Forum for Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) has adopted an amendment to a United Nations Regulation on Automated Lane Keeping Systems (ALKS) that lays down the technical requirements for their use in heavy vehicles, including trucks, buses, and coaches,” says the UNECE. “This step marks the first binding international regulation for the introduction of so-called 'level 3' vehicle automation in heavy vehicles on the roads.”

Stateside, self-driving products/services are offered under various schemes. San Francisco-based Embark Trucks says they have “been building autonomous driving software exclusively for trucks since day one — allowing us to power the safest, most commercially viable autonomous trucks on the market.” The firm describes its Embark Universal Interface as “an interoperable self-driving stack that works across truck OEM platforms.” Another player is Waymo: an autonomous driving technology development company and a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google.

San Diego-based TuSimple scored high with an exercise that began in December 2021. “During this time, TuSimple became the first and only company to autonomously operate heavy-duty trucks on open public roads with no humans in the vehicle, no remote control, and no human intervention of any kind,” said a media release on the company's website.

According to the firm, “the trucks operated within a defined route and conditions called the Operational Design Domain (ODD) [which] covered an 80-mile (128km) "hub-to-hub" stretch in Arizona between a rail yard in Tucson and a high-volume distribution center outside of Phoenix [and] included surface streets and highways with a maximum speed of 65 mph (104 kph) and evening launch times starting at 20:00.”

“Because these were the first runs of their kind and to put people at ease,” TuSimple says their safety precautions included “a survey vehicle and [an] oversight vehicle...state and local authorities also requested to trail the autonomous trucks by about a half-mile to observe operations.” With this safety cushion, “TuSimple conducted the runs along the route 'as-is', without any artificial traffic control, road closures, trimming of trees or foliage, cleaning or clearing of signs, removal of road debris, and with no remote control of the truck or other interventions.”

Down the road

Self-driving trucks will increasingly become a part of supply chains despite the tech challenges. The pace of adoption is anyone's guess at this point.

This evolution will not proceed smoothly. Perhaps there will never be a serious accident involving a self-driving truck but expect the media to jump on the incident with both feet if that happens. Robbie the Robot was a mixture of cool and scary, and we anticipate the same going forward.

There will also be pushback from human truckers — expect blocked highways at a minimum. Governments will want to consider public relations exercises such as job retraining.

The road is long but intriguing.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/gorodenkoff