Technology replacing truck drivers with steering wheel attendants
October 1, 2012
I read last month’s issue of this magazine on my smartphone. It’s amazing how technology has allowed me to read a magazine at the touch of a button. Well, not even at the touch of a button – I just touched an icon on my screen...
I read last month’s issue of this magazine on my smartphone. It’s amazing how technology has allowed me to read a magazine at the touch of a button. Well, not even at the touch of a button – I just touched an icon on my screen and the complete magazine appeared as if by magic.
Look at that in isolation and it’s quite an achievement. But is it really necessary and is it that much more convenient? In reality, all it changed was that instead of getting off my butt and picking up a copy of the magazine, I reached into my pocket and tapped on my screen. Everything I wanted from the magazine was still there in front of me, for sure, but the experience itself was not as pleasurable as actually sitting down and turning the pages myself. I was still in control of what I read, but at the same time, I wasn’t in control of the magazine. I was in control of a bunch of microprocessors and other technological wizardry that was doing all the work for me.
It isn’t difficult to flip a page, just as it isn’t difficult to crank a window up or down, or shift a gear in a transmission, or to find a destination in an atlas, yet now to do any of those things all we have to do is push a button and a microprocessor does it all for us.
Trucks are going the same way. Get into the cab of a brand new model and there are no sticks and levers to be found, all you see are buttons and switches. Under the skin there are now kilometres of wiring and electronic control modules galore. The average truck now has more computing power than the space ship that took the man to the moon.
There are cars today that can park themselves. I’m not talking about top of the line BMWs or similar either, you can get all this on a sub-$20,000 family car. Pretty soon this will filter down to trucks, cameras in the rearview mirrors will be linked to motors in the steering gear and all you’ll have to do to hit the dock is touch an icon on a screen and the microprocessors will do the rest.
We already have automated manual transmissions that shift gears for us. They take information from a variety of sensors in the engine, transmission and suspension systems and come up with an ideal gear for the situation.
We have traction control, lane departure warning systems and adaptive cruise control that keep us a safe distance from the vehicle in front. Coming down the pike in the very near future is cruise control that is linked to GPS so that it knows when you’re approaching a grade and gets ready to apply more power or downshift.
My question is, do we actually need any of this? Or is it just being done because it can be done? Even going back to basics, do we really need a combination of switches and electronic motors to raise or lower a window when a simple winding handle and a few cogs will do the same job?
Do we need a computer to shift gears? Do we need a computer to judge a safe following distance or tell us that we’re veering out of our travelling lane? Do we need a computer to get the truck on the power or in the right gear for a hill? Do we need a computer to tell us which way to turn at an intersection so we can arrive at our destination without getting lost?
The honest answer is, no we don’t. I know that times change and that we need to improve things to progress, but sometimes progression can be a bad thing. In the case of trucking, I think that in the long-term it will do more harm than good. For one thing it will spell the end of the truck driver. We will be replaced by the ‘steering wheel attendant.’
A truck driver knows when they need to shift a gear and they know how to time that shift so that it goes through smoothly. A truck driver knows that they’re in the correct position on the highway, not too close to the vehicle in front or over the centreline or on the shoulder. A truck driver knows through the seat of their pants or the feel through the steering wheel when the roads are slick, and drives accordingly. A truck driver knows how to read an atlas and find a destination.
On the other hand, a steering wheel attendant needs help in every one of those areas. They need the truck to shift for them, they cannot judge speed, distance and road position, they rely on traction control to judge road conditions and apply brakes and cut the power so they can keep it out of the ditch. How can that possibly be considered as progress?
I can see a time in the near future when all the truck drivers have disappeared and been replaced by steering wheel attendants. The freight will still move and to the outside world, nothing will have changed – until there’s a malfunction in one of the systems and the steering wheel attendant doesn’t know how to react, because all the basic skills of keeping a truck on the road have been eroded due to years of having everything done for them by a computer – and there’s a catastrophe. It’s a scary thought.