The era is upon us. Machines that can operate themselves in a controlled environment are moving into public, every day use. The Daimler automotive company was recently granted permission to test their self-driving truck on a public highway in Nevada. The Freightliner Inspiration uses a combination of video cameras, radar, and GPS in order to drive on its own. There is a catch, however, as a licensed truck driver is required to be in the front seat in order to take control of the truck if it malfunctions. Proponents of the new technology claim that the self-sustaining truck will allow drivers to check their emails, take breaks from their long hauls, cut down on fossil fuel emission, and, most importantly, reduce accidents. Large trucks were involved in 330,000 accidents in 2012, most of them the result of driver error, killing almost 4,000 people in the U.S. alone. A change in safety regulations are needed.
Contrary to popular belief, self-operating machines is nothing new to the modern world. Vehicles such as the SMSS were used in Afghanistan in 2011 in order to track a particular soldier’s movements, transport supplies, and carry out dangerous evacuations. Furthermore, many driverless vehicles are already being used across the world in low-speed, private environments. The difficulty for Daimler was flipping those classifications into enabling the vehicles to operate on public roads at high speeds. In order to speed up the process of getting their trucks on the road, Daimler’s trucks can only drive themselves on the highway, a driver must take over once they reach suburban traffic which presents a much more “complicated traffic environment.”
Unfortunately, the problems do not end with the production and insertion of the trucks onto the road. There are very serious ethical debates that must be had and answered prior to these trucks becoming completely legal on public roads. The truck designers must, in a sense, play god as they would have to include programming for worst-case scenario decisions such as deciding which way to go and who they would kill in a high speed crash. In these unfortunate scenarios, people are forced to make the same difficult decisions in an instant, based on their gut feeling. The concern is that a machine does not possess a gut feeling, a conscious, or any sort moral compass to help them make this decision.
Furthermore, another pressing concern is the job stability within the trucking industry. It is safe to assume that these trucks will continue to be modified until the programmers have created a perfect version. Once that model is created, it will be repeated and reproduced in mass proportions. BBC estimates that human drivers will be taken completely out of the equation by 2030. While this may sound great to the programmers, it presents a serious problem to the employees of the trucking industry. There are 8.7 million people involved in the trucking industry, 3.5 million of them being drivers. The disruption of these people’s careers could lead to a massive impact on the economy of our nation.
Although much of the concern is simply speculation of what the future may hold, it is clear that every angle of the trucking industry must be evaluated before these self-driving trucks can hit the road.