Last Thursday, an 18-wheeler carrying 50,000 cans of Budweiser travelled from Loveland, Colorado to Colorado Springs, a 120-mile trip made newsworthy by the simple fact that this particular 18-wheeler was driving itself. One of those good old-fashioned human beings was on hand to oversee certain things from a sleeper berth in the tractor, including steering the truck through a weigh station in Fort Collins, and ultimately navigating the city streets of Colorado Springs. But the autonomous truck managed the majority of the trip on its own. Purported to be the world’s first commercial shipment made by a self-driving truck, A-B made the trip in partnership with Otto, a self-driving technology company owned by ridesharing giant Uber.
WHY IT MATTERS
In a news release that comes about 130 years after introducing the refrigerated rail cars of the 1880s, A-B touts the technological achievement as transformative to the trucking industry. The proliferation of this technology, the company says, would reduce the number of fatalities on the road, enable fuel-efficient driving, and provide a “sustainable solution for the driver shortage that continues to put pressure on drivers to work long hours,” which are detrimental to safe operational practices.
“We had a chance to ride on the self-driving truck, and to just continue to evaluate this as an innovation that makes sense for us,”James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy at A-B, tells GBH. “And, you know, we came to the conclusion that, wow, the benefits are—not just to us, but to the communities of other shippers, quite frankly, and carriers—huge. We wanted to definitely be on the leadership side of this.”
Sembrot was unable to detail a timeline for when this technology could really be implemented at a scalable level (opting instead to recognize that “technology does move very fast”), but he did say that they’re working in partnership with Otto in exploring other geographies, while the technology company works with various state regulators to ensure compliance.
As such, one of the most important questions here is this: How might this affect the men and women currently tasked with trucking A-B cargo? There are 3.5 million truckers in this country, and there’s real fear that such innovation would reduce the need for them. Of course, that issue of labor versus machine—behind the wheels of the nation’s big rigs and everywhere else—extends far beyond beer.
Either way, The Verge reports that current law requires a human to be on-board self-driving trucks, and A-B says this technology could create more work, not less, for drivers, by giving them the opportunity to rest. Per A-B’s statement:
“To ensure the safety of all road users, these laws limit the number of hours truck drivers can work each day. Naturally, this also limits how much money drivers can make. Otto’s self-driving technology has the potential to extend productive hours without forcing drivers to choose between safety and earnings.”
Sembrot also assures the self-driving technology “doesn’t do what those guys do,” adding, “They’re in cities, unloading cases.”