The Truck Without a Driver – Part 1

by Edo van Belkom

Mark Dalton was an hour west of Regina on the Trans-Canada Highway hauling a load of Canadian beer destined for Asia. Somehow, a Canadian brewer convinced a Chinese distributor that beer from Canada is better, more flavorful, or just plain exotic. That, or there was a tariff on American beer imported into China and like most other things, someone else benefits.

Mark had three days to get to the coast and he’d done the trip often enough that just two days was more than enough time, so he was driving cautiously and taking in the view of Saskatchewan in springtime.

Along with Mark, there were plenty of longhaul trucks on the route, bringing goods and materials to hubs in Calgary and on to Edmonton, or like Mark straight on through to the coast. Hundreds, maybe even thousands of trucks drove the Trans-Canada every hour and as a result the highway was more like a lifeline for the country rather than just a roadway.

But among all the usual trucks – flatbeds, box trailers, reefers, livestock haulers – there was one truck like he’d never seen before. It was new, clean, totally aerodynamic and, Mark couldn’t help but think, just a little bit sexy. There were lights on it that were flush with the body and everything else about it looked different, from the aerodynamic flares around the tires to the rivets holding the trailers body in place.

It looked like…the future.

And there was another thing different about it as well. For as long as Mark had been following it, the truck had never sped up or slowed down. Instead, it had maintained exactly the same speed, which Mark confirmed with a glance at his own speedometer, was right on the speed limit. This was great for whoever the guy was hauling for, but for people in cars who were used to driving up to 20 km/h over the limit, this truck was a bit of an obstacle that wasn’t so easy to get around.

After a few more kilometers, Mark decided to pass the truck himself to get a look at the front of it, and to see who in the world could be so disciplined on the road. He moved into the left lane and edged up even with the truck. As the cab came into his field of vision, Mark was shocked to see that the driver was laid back in his seat and was…reading a magazine.

“Dear God, man. You’re going to crash like that!” Mark shouted inside the cab of Mother Load.

But the driver seemed not to notice Mark. Or care. However, he did look up from his magazine every once in a while, and did what looked to be a full scan of the road in front of him, and all the gauges on his dashboard. And that’s when he read the sign on the left front fender.

“The Autonomous Pilot Project.”

“Okay,” Mark said aloud. “I get it.”

What Mark was looking at was one of the new autonomous trucks that every tech or engineering company in the world seemed intent on developing and bringing to market. While it wasn’t a true driverless truck, it was an early version of what would eventually be a truck that required no driver to steer it across the country.

Right now the technology was at a point where the truck could drive itself well enough on the straight and flat highway between Regina and Calgary, but the systems still had enough glitches or limitations that there still needed to be someone inside the truck to take over if the computers – or whatever the hell was driving the truck – broke down, didn’t work, or couldn’t figure something out, like a traffic jam or bad weather.

Obviously, Mark had stumbled upon a test project for driverless trucks. It made sense to do it in this part of the country where the road was straight and flat and a truck could probably get itself from one warehouse just off the highway in Regina to another warehouse just off the highway in Calgary. If the truck could first get from depot to depot, then they could move on to try and develop a truck that could drive itself in city traffic.

Or at least that was the plan. As Mark matched the truck’s progress down the highway, the driver – or perhaps monitor behind the wheel – noticed Mark staring and waved. And as he did so, the truck just kept on trucking down the highway without a twitch or hiccup.

Even when they came upon traffic at the Saskatchewan/Alberta border, the autonomous truck flawlessly navigated through the slowdown, matching pace with the other cars around it then speeding up to, but never over, the speed limit when traffic got back to normal. Half the drivers Mark knew had trouble keeping things running so smoothly.

And that was the danger.

Although this truck probably cost millions – maybe even billions – to design and build, in the long run it would be cheaper to operate than a truck that needed a driver. It would work continuously, night and day without a break or a log book to fill out. There would also be less traffic because these trucks would drive through the night, and as a result there would be fewer accidents and ultimately a reduction in shipping costs.

And, there would be one more trucker out of a job, but that was the whole point and biggest part of the cost savings.

Mark wanted to say it was a terrible idea, but he knew that there was currently a shortage of drivers. Clearly, there might just be a place for a truck without a driver.

On the one hand there was always a fear of the unknown and who knew if this would work or not? But then those who resisted technological progress were always doomed to be surpassed by it.

Kodak once had the early opportunity to be a leader in digital cameras, but it decided the technology would never surpass film as the best way to take photographs. And people say the taxi cab industry has only itself to blame with poor service, dirty cabs and rude drivers, paving the way for services like Uber and Lyft to flourish.

If this worked on a large scale, people – drivers like him – would be out of a job.

Mark had to see more of this operation first-hand. He pulled back behind the truck and decided to follow it to wherever it was going. TN

Mark Dalton returns next month in Part 2 of The Truck Without a Driver.

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