Wednesday, June 24, 2015

How Long Before Driverless Trucks Are Plying Highway 83?

Look carefully at this picture.
That driver doesn’t have his hands on the wheel. The truck is driving itself.
This isn’t science fiction. It’s reality. It might not be too long before 18-wheelers such as this Freightliner are passing through towns and cities along the 1,885 miles of U.S. Highway 83 and the 150 or so miles it extends into Canada.
In fact, one organization is actively seeking to make Highway 83 a testbed for driverless trucks.
The Central North American Trade Corridor Association is promoting Highway 83 as a road where such trucks could operate.
As someone who has driven every inch of the U.S. section of Highway 83 — and a defense technology writer — I might be uniquely qualified to comment on this plan. (It’s true. I don’t make a living writing regional nonfiction history books about Highway 83 and the American Indian Movement. I have a dayjob as managing editor of National Defense Magazine based in Arlington, Virginia.) As such, I have been following the progress of robotic vehicle technology for the past 10 years. In fact, I wrote an article in the July issue of the magazine with its readers in mind. (LINK HERE)
As for the readers of this blog, who live on Highway 83, there are many issues to consider. By my count, there are 128 communities along its way. Some large, some small.
Some — like my Dad’s hometown of Stapleton, Nebraska, are off on a spur road. A robotic tractor-trailer wouldn’t come directly through town, but it would pass by a dangerous intersection.
Some big cities like Abilene, Texas, and Garden City, Kansas, have bypasses. Others like North Platte, Valentine, and McCook, Nebraska, have none at all. The driverless trucks would go right through town with many stoplights, pedestrians and turns to contend with.
Some towns cities like Bismarck, North Dakota, Pierre, South Dakota, and Laredo, Texas, the two state capitals, have partial bypasses. In both cases, the trucks with have to deal with city traffic on some stretches. Some towns have wide thoroughfares as Highway 83 also doubles as its Main Street such as Scott City, Kansas, and Perryton, Texas. On the southern reaches, there is the 83 Expressway that bypasses the towns. I have to tell you: traffic flies on that four-laner. The robot trucks will have to contend with a lot of speeders and reckless drivers.
Highway 83 in Minot, North Dakota
All these challenging scenarios might be why Highway 83 would be a good testbed. It certainly will be more difficult for a robot to negotiate than a relatively straight Interstate that doesn’t have stoplights, intersections, bicycles and pedestrians.
Many of the technological challenges of driverless vehicles are being worked out. Some cars are already driving on the streets of Nevada and California. As I said the National Defense Magazine column: “Robots don’t need to sleep. They don’t drive drowsy. Robots don’t require health insurance. They don’t have to take drug and alcohol tests. They don’t develop bad backs from hours and days spent sitting in a truck and need to apply for workers compensation.
They don’t go over the speed limit. They don’t take chances during a snowstorm to make it home by Christmas. When a winter storm hits, an order to pullover and wait it out can be sent via satellite link.”
You can see why trucking companies, who are always facing a shortage of drivers, might be interested in investing and lobbying for these trucks to begin plying U.S. Highways.
But you can also see why the residents of the towns along the way should be concerned.
I posted the column on the Fans of U.S. Route 83 Facebook page I administer. There were a variety of responses from the members: Some of them basically said “Hell no. Not in my town.”
There were some interesting points made. One member brought up hacking. Is there a system that hackers can’t break into? The short answer is “probably not.” Someone taking over control of the truck for nefarious purposes can’t be discounted.
What about severe weather? Driverless trucks outfitted with the proper sensors can see through fog, snow and rain better than a human. And robots, unlike humans, are not risk takers. If the conditions become too dangerous, they will pull over and wait out the storm.
What about hijackers, one member brought up. I don’t know much about the tactics and techniques of highway thieves. That is a valid question for the trucking company and its insurers. 
I wonder about some towns along Highway 83 passing their own legislation banning such trucks from entering their town or city limits. Or even an entire state. Wouldn’t that torpedo this whole idea?
I also worry about the longer-term trends of automation. Driving trucks is a good, middle-class job that doesn’t require a college degree. Such jobs are becoming more rare. Machines replacing humans at work has been taking place since the beginning of the industrial age. Driverless vehicles will inevitably lead to more machines replacing humans. On the other hand, from what I have read, there is not a long line of youngsters signing up to be truckers. Even during times of high unemployment, there are still shortages of big rig drivers.
My take is that driverless vehicles are here. They’re coming. Probably sooner than most people think. But there are a lot of questions about policies, laws and community acceptance that have to be answered before this technology makes its way to the towns and cities along Highway 83.

Stew Magnuson is the author of The Last American Highway: A Journey Through Time Down U.S. Route 83: The Dakotas, available at and bookstores and gift shops along Highway 83. And The Last American Highway: Nebraska Kansas Oklahoma edition.

To join the Fans of U.S. Route 83 group on Facebook, CLICK HERE. And check out the U.S. Route 83 Travel page at  Contact Stew Magnuson at stewmag (a)