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Self Driving Trucks Are Not Coming Anytime Soon

Brett Aquila on Thu, May 25, 2017

It's common for anyone considering a career in trucking to wonder about the impending takeover of self-driving vehicles. When is this going to happen? Am I going to have a job in a few years? Will they still need drivers for anything at all, or are we all on the way out?

Pleeeeeease! Get serious.

As a software developer myself I'm acutely aware of the difficulty of getting software to do even the most basic tasks reliably, let alone incredibly complex tasks like:

  • Navigating busy city streets
  • Swerving through twisty construction zones
  • Wiggling around in tight parking lots full of busy people
  • Detecting and adjusting to icy roads

....and 10 million other things humans have to figure out each day, on the fly, without warning.

The human mind is vastly more powerful and complex than most people would realize. It's not until you try to mimic what the mind can do that you realize how astounding this challenge will be. We can interpret things going on around us with incredible speed and accuracy. We adjust to the unknown, the unpredictable, and the outright bizarre without much difficulty at all.

And yet if you read the headlines it would seem science has all but written off humans as being useful anymore. Artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and autonomous vehicles are taking over, or about to, if you believe these clowns.

Yes, clowns. They're clowning us.


Well there's quite a few of them in fact. There's no shortage of people who are looking to drum up attention for the impending robot revolution. In fact, why don't we have our own clown parade?

Researchers At Universities

University research requires large amounts of money in the form of grants in order to fund ongoing research. Well say you're a wealthy graduate of University X looking to get some notoriety, and Mr Researcher at University X comes to you and says, "Listen, University X is leading the way in self-driving vehicles. With just a small donation from you, maybe in the six figure range, max, you'll be able to say you were a part of the revolution that University X created!" You might just cut a check for those Benjamins and wait for the bragging rights to come your way. Heck, you probably won't even wait for it to happen before you tell your friends about it. It's a gimme! A professor told you so.

But if they can't get the word out to you, how would you know? So they have to drum up the excitement publicly. Well that's awesome news for:

Publishers Looking For Link Bait Titles

Oh heck yeah, that's me too! But I'm on the other side of the coin. I don't believe any of this is about to happen, so my 'clicky titles' aren't nearly as clicky as the ones proclaiming:

Man, those headlines are rich with sweet, buttery goodness, aren't they? Seriously, I already know you're gonna read em so go ahead. I won't be mad. Sometimes I can't resist either. They really do sound interesting, and they make it seem so realistic, too, like it's actually about to happen!

Corporations Looking For Funding

And naturally we would be remiss if we didn't mention the corporations and their incessant quest for the almighty dollar. The amount of money you can bring in by getting a tech startup funded, or bringing in a new round of public funding for a large corporation, is staggering. It's in the millions for startups, and billions for larger corporations.

Promising your investors huge payoffs if (or when?) your company produces valuable technology is what drives much of the tech world forward. Right now, many thousands of software engineers are getting wealthy while plugging away at the next phase of our technological advancement. Will any of it ever come to fruition? Some. But mostly in the form of selling your "promising startup" to the next larger corporation looking to buy more promising startups.

But you see, there's something you have to understand about technology. You don't assess the current state of technology by its successes. You measure it by its failures. It's not about what we can accomplish when things go perfectly, it's about what we can do safely and consistently, even when everything goes exactly the opposite of what we had anticipated.

Measuring The Current State of Technology By Its Failures

Getting a vehicle to navigate today's overcrowded city streets and Interstates is a monumental task. It's staggering the amount of information that would have to be processed continuously, and accurately, in real time. You would have to combine GPS data with all sorts of other technologies in order to detect obstacles in your path, street signs, highway markings, pedestrians and bicycles, weather, road conditions, other traffic on the highway, and a million other variables.

  • What if you're on a highway in a storm and there's a live power line down across the road?
  • What if you're in a construction zone and they didn't reline the highway to indicate the lane you should be in?
  • What if the road only has one lane open and a flagman is signaling for you to do something?
  • What if you're on the Interstate and a drunk driver is coming at you going the wrong way on the highway? (I've had this happen to me!)

I could go on all day. Are software engineers able to account for this? Pardon my language, but heck no! (I said that with vigor, mind you).

No, they will not be able to account for such things. How do I know?

Here's something I had happen to me yesterday.

An Incredible Siri Fail

So yesterday I'm driving down I-87, heading back to the campground I'm staying at for the season, Iroquois Campground in Peru, NY. Now I've used Siri on my iPhone to request navigation with Apple Maps back to this campground several times. At the time this happened I'm about 8 miles from the campground. Here's the conversation........

Brett: "Hey Siri"

Siri: "Yes?"

Brett: "Navigate to Iroquois Campground"

Siri: "I can't find Iroquois Campground"

Brett: "What the....???"

Brett: "Hey Siri"

Siri: "Yes"

Brett: "Navigate to Iroquois Campground"

Siri: "I can't find Iroquois Campground"

Brett: "WTH??? (Pardon my abbreviated language, but I'm being real here)"

Brett: "Hey Siri"

Siri: "Yes?"

Brett: "Navigate to Iroquois Campground in Peru, NY"

Siri: "Ok, navigating to Iroquois Campground in Peru, NY"

Then she was able to find the place and take me there.

I mean, you've gotta be kidding me???

Apple has $200 Billion in cash and well over 10,000 software engineers and they don't know to look for a place in the area that I've asked them to navigate me to?

I mean, I started with the word "Navigate" and I'm doing 65 mph down the Interstate so ya gotta figure I'm trying to go to a location, right? I'm either going to give you the name of the place, or an address. I obviously didn't give an address, and when she repeated it back she even spelled it properly........"I can't find Iroquois Campground"...............well where the hell were you looking?? Obviously not within an 8 mile range of here!

Duuuuuh........I guess she didn't think to look for a place in the area with that name. What a novel idea, huh? Duuuuuuh.

And this is just one tiny example of a software fail, but it's at the most basic level. What happens if we start counting on this technology on a large scale and we have a major failure?

So where are we when we assess our limitations and failures? Well Tesla had a recent failure with their "autopilot" system, (or auto-kill-you system), when a car smashed directly into the side of a tractor trailer, and the findings were startling:

The government just closed its investigation into the first Tesla Autopilot fatality

Now get this from the article above:

"Tesla wrote in a blog post following the May accident that the Autopilot system did not notice "the white side of the tractor trailer against a brightly lit sky, so the brake was not applied."

The autopilot system didn't notice a tractor trailer?? "My God. But why??" you ask? Oh you'll love this. Because:

"Autopilot is not cross-traffic aware, meaning it should not be expected to recognize and react to vehicles crossing in front of a car", Thomas said.

Ok, I can't even think of a response to that without cussing. You're trying to tell me that you've been promising the world we're about to be taken over by self-driving vehicles but they can't even recognize a tractor trailer sitting completely perpendicular to my path?

When considering the use of technology on a large scale we must judge the technology based upon its limitations and failures, not upon its potential. It's as simple as that. And where do we stand right now with regard to self-driving technology?

We're Limited, And We're Failing.

So the next time you find yourself lying awake worrying about self-driving vehicles, just go back to sleep. We're not within a million miles of this happening yet. They're just clowning us.

If you'd like to join the discussion and leave a comment, we'd love to hear from you in our forum:

Forum Discussion: Self Driving Vehicles Are Coming Soon You Say? I Say Please Stop Clowning Us

Tagged Under:

Changing Careers Self-Driving Vehicles Truckers Technology Trucking Industry Concerns Trucking News

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