Self-driving trucks are an experiment, and
we’re the guinea pigs.
Imagine driving down the interstate past
an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer. Its driver’s hands aren’t touching the wheel.
Tech companies envision—and are
investing in—a future in which thousands
of such vehicles would navigate our roadways (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies: Self-Driving Trucks,” page 62). Most
people don’t welcome this scenario, nor
should they. A 2016 study conducted by
researchers at the University of Michigan
Transportation Research Institute found
that 95 percent of U.S. motorists had concerns about sharing the road with autonomous trucks and trailers. Safety was the
Skilled, experienced drivers play a
huge role in ensuring the safe operation
of heavy vehicles. The value of a human in
that truck won’t go away no matter what
technology is developed.
Those who advocate for self-driving
cars often cite the fact that human error is
largely responsible for most traffic deaths.
But that doesn’t mean self-driving cars
and trucks will be able to avoid those
errors. An automated vehicle in Pittsburgh recently drove the wrong way up
a one-way road. Last year in Florida a
man using Tesla’s Autopilot feature was
killed when the system failed to recognize
a tractor-trailer in front of the car. These
are not doomsday scenarios; these are
There are other worries: with cyber-
security breaches now a frequent topic
in the news, what happens when not just
one but a “platoon” of trucks is hacked?
The risks to the public only increase as
more vehicle systems are controlled by
computer. Don’t forget that some of those
trucks carry thousands of pounds of haz-
ardous materials every day.
We don’t yet have any federal regulations regarding automated vehicles. The
government has issued guidelines for testing them, but they’re voluntary guidelines for manufacturers, not regulations.
A number of states allow testing for automated vehicles, but they all employ different standards.
Self-driving cars and trucks are an
experiment. But our highways shouldn’t
be experimental grounds where public
safety is put at risk. Yes, we should strive
to innovate and make progress, but we
also need to ensure that changes are
indeed advancements for the betterment
of our society—including the driving public and our nation’s workers.
Anything man-made can fail. If that
failure occurred in a heavy vehicle driving
next to you, wouldn’t you want a driver
behind the wheel?
James P. Hoffa is the general president
of the International Brotherhood of
Getting computers to beat humans at games
is impressive. But now the real work begins.
Early last year, a computer achieved
world-class performance in the game
Go—years before most people believed
such a feat would be possible.
That’s impressive, but our ambitions
should be set higher. Computer science
could help provide what the world critically
needs: tools that enable all of us to reach
beyond what we thought we were capable
of. Reinforcement learning—an integral
part of the Go success—can accelerate that
process (see “10 Breakthrough Technolo-
gies: Reinforcement Learning,” page 32). AN
James P. Hoffa