Artificial intelligence will transform our industry

by Al Goodhall

We live in the age of multitasking. To be plugged in and tuned in all the time is the norm. We live in the age of the busy mind.

But a professional driver is expected to be tuned in to the task at hand for long periods of time, day in and day out. Distraction is one of the key safety issues we face today. Before we spend a large amount of time and effort trying to attract young people to the driving profession, shouldn’t we be asking some uncomfortable questions? Are we taking into account the changing popular culture? Are we stuck in a trucking culture of the past? Are we guilty of failing to adapt to a changing world?

Perhaps professional drivers are a dying breed, and that’s a fact we simply don’t want to face. I know many of you reading this may feel that we will always need a “pilot” in the cab.

But that opinion does not mesh with the goals of artificial intelligence and the vision of a connected world. It’s time to put our emotional attachments to our love of driving for a living aside, and to take an objective look at our world. Artificial intelligence is going to turn our world inside out and upside down for the next several decades, and it’s starting now.

I listened to a radio documentary recently by Ira Basen titled Into the Deep: The Promise and Perils of Artificial Intelligence. This documentary investigates “deep learning,” the ability of computers to think in very human ways. You can find it on the CBC Sunday Edition website if you want to give it a listen. I found it fascinating, exciting, and somewhat terrifying. It’s worth an hour of your time.

The most uncomfortable part of listening to this documentary is when you are introduced to Flippy. Flippy is a robot imbued with artificial intelligence. Flippy started work at a Pasadena, California fast food restaurant in March of this year.

He may be replacing 2.3 million fast food cooks in the U.S. in the very near future. Officially Flippy is called a kitchen assistant and sells for about $30,000, or about the annual salary of one of those fast food cooks he replaces.

When production is rolled out, the price of that kitchen assistant will be around $10,000. As Basen states in his documentary, “You do the math.”

In the trucking industry, we have been focusing on automated trucks and how they impact drivers as a piece of standalone technology. But what if there is a “Truckey” in our future?

A robot endowed with artificial intelligence that works along with the automated truck, performing the tasks of the human driver. Perhaps Truckey will interact with Shippy on the loading dock. It’s hard not to think of this scenario as something out of a Hollywood movie and not a real possibility in our near future.

The thing is, we are really not very good at envisioning what the future may hold for us. This is especially true if you have spent your lifetime working in this great industry as a driver.

Artificial intelligence and the changes it will bring to pass is not a trucking industry issue. It is an issue that changes our human society on a global scale. It does not matter what your profession is, you will be impacted in some way, shape, or form. Yes, there will be jobs created by this new technology, but there will be far more jobs that will be made obsolete.

The solution to our driver shortage is probably not where we think it is, as we look at it through the lens of our past experience. As drivers, we should stop worrying about what the future holds and enjoy every day we have on the road. We may very well be the last of a dying breed.


Al Goodhall has been a professional long-haul driver since 1998. He shares his experiences via his blog at http://truckingacross You can follow him on Twitter at @Al_Goodhall.

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  • I recently noticed the robotic automation at a local fast food business while placing our order on a screen. An excellent system that replaced the need for counter clerks. The added efficiency of serving customers was noticeable, but what made me chuckle was the need for added employees in the kitchen to deal with the exponentional flow of customers.
    Just a transference of duties that didn’t eliminate employees at all.
    We have never been able to predict the effectiveness or efficiency of automation because we can never predict the future of human behaviour to automation until it’s put to the test.
    It is not a question of whether automation will come into play, but how many decades this panacea will spend in hybrid form subservient to an archaic infrastructure – be it restaurant or highway.
    The mind of the professional driver, like all human minds, thinks by association to an acquired prior knowledge of experiences. They are nothing less than acute instincts that react accordingly to an immeasurable amount of prevailing conditions.
    If we always assume that the road to the title of ‘Professional driver’ is nothing more than learning by doing procedure, the failures to codify the next generation of intelligence will be eminent.
    Understanding completely what those years of experience mean in scientific and philosophical terms, not to mention the bigger picture of how it will interact with archaic infrastructure designs, then we will, as we always have, cheapened the talents of the ‘Professional driver.’ The future of automous anthing will follow suit.
    “For most of us, design is invisible until it fails” is a quote by Bruce Mau. It’s a double edge sword; It means that a good design of anything operates flawlessly with human interactions. Things like spoons, forks and toasters are easy to use flawlessly. However it gets a little more complicated with a very slight movement in technology to TV’s and those things in our home that are still flashing ’12:00 O clock’
    Bad design, on the other hand means the flaw is not noticed by the average human interaction. We see it everyday on our roads how the failure to read the most simple of road, human, and design properties has fatal consequences. Drivers get a drivers licence on a shoestring budget and are inevitably consumed by their own impatience or emotional state behind the wheel. It results failure to understand the most basic sciences or the discipline to regulate them.
    It brings to mind a news story a couple of years ago of a toddler who walked bare foot on a black iron plate at a wading pool on a hot summer day and suffered serious burns to the feet. The parents didn’t see it coming as the child walked safely on the grass, but neither did the engineers – the very ones who built the fixture that housed the plumbing for the pool.
    The natural world reminds us everyday when we fail to pay close attention to the finer details – and then soundly kicks our ass. Somehow the Professional driver gets it right in the most extreme of prevailing conditions. It may be time to tap into those cognitive abilities before we let experts experiment with human guinea pigs.
    Unfortunately, the ‘Google’ world still defines a ‘Professional driver’ as nothing more than “someone who gets paid to drive.”
    What has always kept me interested and I dare say, ‘Addicted’ to a job with the most extreme of all consuming conditions, is the overwhelming sense of presence in reality.

  • This is a really great article. As a programmer in Silicone Valley, studying Self Driving Cars (this came across one of the lists I follow) the impact my work has on the world is certainly a moral issue I wrestle with. I hope autonomous vehicles make life better and safer for everyone, and that truckers might move towards managing their own fleet, and out of the drivers seat – truckers’ experience and knowledge of the industry has great value. I hope it doesn’t just mean raw unemployment.

    Autonomous trucks are coming faster than the trucking world expects.

    Already, the first autonomous truck made a delivery.

    Tesla is working hard on an autonomous semi truck (presumably to deliver batteries from NV to CA.)

    As companies work on autonomous cars, the autonomous semi truck is a far easier problem: no stoplights, no pedestrians, pretty much all clear highway.

    One paradigm could be that a trucker drives the full truck to the outskirts of the city, then gets out. The truck drives across the nation all day and night to just outside the delivery city, then another trucker drives it to its destination.

    Already there are lots of autonomous farm equipment like tractors because rows are straight and there are no people around to endanger.

    Thanks again for a very thoughtful article.

    • I would love nothing more than an autonomous truck to haul through the vast empty spaces between places.
      It would for decades resemble that which you described and truckers would do local work when the cross- country freight arrives at staging terminals outside city limits. Truckers would have more home time as automnomy will take over what was once an all consuming and compromising lifestyle.
      That is of course until such time as the autonomous deliver vehicle can deliver locally into city cores – if ever.
      This transition stage the final concept of autonomous logistics is ratified – if ever.
      I fail to see the immediate efficiencies or cost cutting advances in freight hauling as the supply chain links are increased exponentially to develope this concept to its completion.
      If anything, more jobs will be created and more links in the chain of engineered redundancies will be needed which will render the future of trucker jobs totally safe.