Less black and white when it comes to autonomous vehicles

Recently having attended the American Trucking Associations’ (ATA) Management Conference and Exhibition in Las Vegas, the issue of autonomous vehicles has become an intriguing topic of late, at least for me it has.

Driverless cars and trucks were a big part of the ATA’s event, and looking back at my column last month, it almost seems like discussing how technology can now aid a driver from rear-ending someone, or notify them when they change lanes without signaling, or driving over the speed limit, is old news. Big deal, right? Don’t most vehicles put out nowadays have this kind of technology included with it?

When I bought my car, I was excited that it had a CD player in it, cruise control, power windows and air-conditioning…and that was less than 10 years ago. Buy a car with only that in it now and…well, I don’t think there are cars with just those ‘bare bones.’

Cars, and trucks, drive themselves now, and it’s a weird concept to wrap your head around. I remember when I was a kid I heard about this silly guy down in the States who put his RV into cruise control and vacated the driver’s seat because he was told the cruise feature was ‘like the vehicle drove itself.’ He proceeded to go off the road, crash and destroy that nice expensive camper. He then sued the company that sold it to him for false advertising…apparently the RV didn’t drive itself at all.

I remember thinking how ridiculous this guy must have been – despite the fact that I think he won the lawsuit – and back then he certainly was, but not anymore.

One of the keynote speeches during the ATA event addressed autonomous vehicles, and ATA president Chris Spear followed up on it later on from a trucking perspective.

Basically the theme of each was that driverless technology was here, and here to stay, and people in the industry and beyond need to become educated on what that means.

The speaker also made a point that the next step in autonomous vehicles had nothing to do with technology, but rather with public policy, and the need for a more uniform approach to regulating such a thing. But I think the court of public opinion plays a much bigger role right now than government regulations.

Government will definitely have its say – it always does whether we like it or not – but having your average everyday person, driving down the highway in their Ford Focus and looking over their shoulder at the car, or tractor-trailer, beside them, and the driver is looking at Facebook on their smartphone, while the vehicle drives itself 120 km/hr down the road, is a big techno-pill to swallow. That’s a difficult reality to accept.

Who do you blame if the vehicle gets into a collision and kills someone? Who do you blame if it goes off the road and kills the driver? How do you insure a driver who isn’t driving; what are their premiums based on?

And with regards to trucking, how will the industry manage such a major shift in focus, going from relying on the best drivers in the world to depending more on technology companies?

Spear was right when he said there were a lot of questions needing answers before the ATA would dismiss or embrace autonomous vehicles, and I think the same goes for the public.

If driverless technology is our future, and 20 years from now the term ‘distracted driving’ become obsolete, and there are less traffic-related injuries and deaths as a result, great.

But when something does happen, it will take a long time for people to accept that they can’t just point a finger and blame someone…there will be a lot of gray and much less black and white.

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A university graduate with a degree in English, I have worked in the media and trucking industries as a writer, editor, and now as western bureau chief of Today's Trucking and TruckNews.com. I have several years of management experience in journalism, as well as hospitality, but am first and foremost a writer, both professionally and in my personal life, having completed two fiction novels.

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