How well will truck drivers react to having an assistant?

I was recently south of the border doing a test drive at the Paccar plant in Washington State when I had one of a few opportunities lately to ride in a truck equipped with some of the latest technology in driver ‘assistance.’

I emphasized the word ‘assistance’ because that is what the developers of the technology did – stress how when it comes to notifying drivers of a stopped vehicle ahead, a person crossing the road, an unexpected lane change, driving over the posted speed limit, tailgating and even braking to avoid a collision when the driver fails to do so, the system is not intended to replace the operator, but assist them. Anyone who has developed these kinds of technologies will tell you the exact same thing.

Driver assistance technology is an amazing advancement that will hopefully (and most likely) reduce the number of collisions on the road. It helps the driver with so many things, as

I mentioned above. But of course, there is a ‘but.’ At what point does this type of technology inadvertently create what I’m going to call a lazy driver?

Anyone who has had their driver’s licence for even a few years can attest to the fact that many of us drive like it is second nature. We daydream while behind the wheel about any number of things that are going on in our lives at the time, or even about what we’re going to order at the coffee shop…‘should I get just a regular coffee or splurge on a latte today? Decisions, decisions.’

There are times when we drive from point A to point B and can barely recall how we even got there.

So, although driver assistance technology will help avoid some collisions from ever happening, is there also a chance it will cause accidents that would have never occurred in the first place?

If a driver becomes too comfortable behind the wheel of one of today’s hi-tech tractor trailers, relying heavily on the vehicle’s computer system, equipped with a camera and radar system to detect almost anything around them, including distance, speed, movement and overall level of danger, will some become less attentive to the road?

I asked this question a few times when being shown various driver assistance systems in action, as this type of technology is all the rage right now and everyone wants to show you how theirs works. I got the same response each time; that the system was intended to ‘assist’ not ‘replace.’ But sometimes intent does not equal the result.

It’s way too early to determine how people will react to this relatively new safety technology (which is also in many everyday passenger vehicles), but like anything that comes out these days, it will only become more and more advanced each year.

This will eventually lead to fully autonomous trucks – which, yes, are already out there – becoming a common sight on our highways, platooning down the road with no driver in sight.

Perhaps this is where the industry must go if the truck transportation sector is to thrive in the future, considering there seems to be a challenge getting the new generation interested in driving as a career choice. Your phone calls and letters – and thank you all very much for taking the time to call or write about this issue – have certainly indicated that many of you who currently drive for a living are far from confident in a new crop stepping up to take over when you retire.

So, though it may be driver ‘assistance’ right now, this is likely just the first step of many toward a technological answer for the driver shortage, one that may be necessary, but must also be approached with caution. For now, we’ll simply have to wait and see just how well drivers react to having an assistant.

Derek Clouthier

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 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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