Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers? NPR's Scott Simon speaks with New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo about self-driving trucks — and whether we're ready for their arrival.
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Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers?

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Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers?

Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers?

Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers?

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NPR's Scott Simon speaks with New York Times technology columnist Farhad Manjoo about self-driving trucks — and whether we're ready for their arrival.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

For all the talk about self-driving cars, it was a self-driving truck that may drive us a little faster into the future. This week, a big rig, carrying 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer, made a shipment in Colorado with no driver at the wheel. Anheuser-Busch calls it the world's first commercial delivery by a self-driving truck. Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for The New York Times, and he's also been in a driver-free truck. Thanks very much for being with us.

FARHAD MANJOO: Hey, good to be here.

SIMON: What's it like to be in one of these trucks?

MANJOO: Well, surprisingly normal. The trucks so far - the ones that they're running so far - have a driver sitting at the seat, then he flips a button and the truck just kind of takes over. It's basically like looking at someone flip on cruise control, except here, you know, when the driver took his hands off the wheel, the wheel kept turning as the road moved ahead.

SIMON: I mean this question utterly seriously because I gather there were some tweets about it this week. We're talking about a beer truck delivery. Is it possible that some fraternity at the University of Wisconsin could hack into a beer truck and (laughter) get it delivered to their frat house instead of the market?

MANJOO: You know, this is one of the concerns with both self-driving trucks, self-driving cars and generally more of our kind of national infrastructure becoming digital, becoming automated. You know, this is one of the questions I think looming over the whole sector is the security both from hacking but also from mishap, you know, just sort of inadvertent bugs in the system that could cause it, you know, real problems in the real world.

SIMON: And will this ultimately throw human truck drivers out of business?

MANJOO: This company Otto, which Uber recently purchased, they argue that the human truck driver, at least in the foreseeable future, in the next, perhaps, 10 to 20 years, the human truck driver won't be completely eliminated from the truck. So on residential streets, on other streets where it's both more difficult to drive a truck, the human truck driver might still be necessary at that point. And the truck driver does other things like unload the vehicle, perhaps, fill out the paperwork, you know, do a lot of white-collar type work in the cab.

Their sort of vision for this is that if you get this technology in your truck, you can make your truck twice as efficient and your job perhaps slightly easier. Now of course, this is the - they're making the technology so they're sort of putting the best face on this. Truck drivers I spoke to weren't as enthusiastic about this whole proposition.

So I would say that there are both sort of technological changes here but also social changes. And those social dynamics - the idea of a truck driving down the road and no one is in it might be so alien to people that we might - it might take a very long time before we're comfortable with that.

SIMON: Well, but - let me point out, Mr. Manjoo, people used to be that way about elevators. We think nothing of it now in the tallest buildings in the world.

MANJOO: It's true. I mean, it's hard to - I think I've been in one elevator that had an operator. So it's possible we'll be that way with trucks and cars at some point. My own feeling is that it's probably going to be at least 20 years until that happens, perhaps longer.

SIMON: Farhad Manjoo is technology columnist at The New York Times. Thanks for being with us.

MANJOO: Thanks so much.

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For The Long Haul, Self-Driving Trucks May Pave The Way Before Cars

For The Long Haul, Self-Driving Trucks May Pave The Way Before Cars

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Otto developed technology to allow big-rig trucks to drive themselves. Uber, another transportation company working on self-driving technology, acquired Otto in August. Tony Avelar/AP hide caption

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Tony Avelar/AP

Otto developed technology to allow big-rig trucks to drive themselves. Uber, another transportation company working on self-driving technology, acquired Otto in August.

Tony Avelar/AP

Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of attention lately: Uber's self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla's semi-autonomous Model S and the driverless Google rides that look like a cross between a Cozy Coupe and a golf cart. But quietly and without much fanfare, researchers and entrepreneurs are working on self-driving trucks — big rigs, tractor trailers.

Trucker Rusty Todd has heard a bit about them. He paused to consider a future of self-driving trucks while taking a break at a truck stop in Jessup, Md. "Well then, I'm going to be without a job," Todd said with a laugh.

He's joking. Kinda, sorta. Todd's not worried about losing his job to a robot driver anytime soon. But he said what he's hearing about self-driving trucks makes him a bit nervous.

" 'Cause not all systems are perfect. I mean not all computers are perfect," Todd said. "They're doing it with the cars, yeah, I can agree with that 'cause a car doesn't weigh as much as these things do. These things are heavy."

Todd's right that self-driving cars can be seen here and there, but the big shift to self-driving vehicles may happen first on America's interstates, in big rigs, not in fancy electric cars.

"It could likely be that it would happen en masse faster in trucks than it would in cars," says Alain Kornhauser.

Kornhauser, who heads the Autonomous Vehicle Engineering program at Princeton University, says long-haul trucks are well suited for self-driving technology. Trucks log most of their miles on highways, where the lanes are well marked, where the roadways are smooth and where there are no pedestrians, no bicyclists and no kids playing ball.

Don Burnette, senior staff engineer at Otto, checks the software on a computer in the back of the self-driving, big-rig truck. Self-driving trucks could make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful. Tony Avelar/AP hide caption

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Tony Avelar/AP

Don Burnette, senior staff engineer at Otto, checks the software on a computer in the back of the self-driving, big-rig truck. Self-driving trucks could make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful.

Tony Avelar/AP

"The self-driving is easy," Kornhauser says.

Kornhauser says he expects to see plenty of self-driving trucks within a decade. But he points out that self-driving doesn't mean driverless. It's likely a trucker will still be in the cab, probably in the driver's seat, ready to take control if something goes wrong. He thinks this change will make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful.

"They can have all sorts of screens in front of them to do whatever things they need to do," Kornhauser said. "And instead of being stuck in some cubicle in some building with no windows to look out, they have a perfect view of the world as they're traveling down the road."

Kornhauser is optimistic about the future of self-driving trucks, which makes sense since he has a company that's working on automation for trucks. His company, along with others working to develop this technology, are sending the same message to truckers: The jobs will be less dangerous and won't go away.

As the technology improves and expands for self-driving cars, Alain Kornhauser says that does not mean the trucks will be driverless. It's likely a trucker will still sit in the driver's seat ready to take control should something go wrong. Tim Boyle/Getty Images hide caption

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Tim Boyle/Getty Images

As the technology improves and expands for self-driving cars, Alain Kornhauser says that does not mean the trucks will be driverless. It's likely a trucker will still sit in the driver's seat ready to take control should something go wrong.

Tim Boyle/Getty Images

That's the foreseeable future, but eventually, the technology that makes them safer could make truckers' jobs obsolete.

Fred Rush has been a trucker for two years and he's enjoying life on the road.

During a trip hauling a load of yogurt from Tucumcari, N.M., to Allentown, Pa., Rush, 30, spoke with NPR. He said he likes the job because he gets to travel a lot — something he didn't do much before.

"I've seen every state now," he said. "Every time I finish a load I have no idea where I'm going next. It keeps things different."

Rush is watching the automation of driving with mixed emotions.

"I'm all for it. It'd save lives, it'd save pollution. Wouldn't be a lot of wasted time, but it would suck," Rush said. "I really think I'm probably one of the last generations of truckers. I don't think it will be around for my kids or my grandkids, but fun to try it while it's still here."

And just in case the driverless future arrives sooner than expected, Rush said he's thinking about a plan B. Maybe something in computers, like information technology. Those jobs are safe, right?