Are autonomous trucks ready for Dangerous Goods?

Yellow truck on highway

We live in quite a world, nowadays. Technical advances help us everywhere at home, at work, and pretty much anywhere in between. From programmable coffee machines that have a piping hot, freshly ground and brewed cup of coffee waiting for you at a designated time, to cell phones that will tell you when to go where and how to get there. And as for technology in the logistics world, there is more and more talk about autonomous vehicles. Testing has already begun on self-driving cars, meaning autonomous trucks, that can haul freight without a driver, are not too far behind. And this is a good thing, considering the shortage of truck drivers in the industry. 

Now I am not one to stand in the way of progress, but a few points do come to mind when considering autonomous trucks. 

This technical advance is rather new, and so far, we have already seen over a dozen crashes of these autonomous cars, some of these involving fatalities.  Granted, since the cars are in beta testing phases, these crashes will be investigated, and corrections will be made to avoid these in the future. But I still am not convinced that these autonomous vehicles are the end-all.  Then I look at another consequence: if drivers are no longer needed, what happens to the current workforce of drivers? According to the American Trucking Association, there are an estimated 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US alone. There may be an opportunity for some drivers to stay on to help load and unload the trucks, but most probably at lower wages.  

Now, my biggest fear is the transport of Dangerous Goods on these autonomous trucks; will the computer or computer program be able to recognize any and all potential problems that could arise?

Problems  - such as leaks or spills, vapor release, heat generation or fire, just to name a few - will the system be able to detect these and then react properly to the situation? I certainly can’t say for sure, but I can say that my preference is to have an actual person there to make a decision. That same feeling is there when I think of an actual accident: I think human experience is a better choice than a machine. I believe that a driver will know better than a machine what to do in the various scenarios that could play out.  In an accident, the computer may detect a leak, but will the computer be able to stop the spread of the leak? A driver, on the other hand, can easily grab a shovel and build a dam to contain the spill before it reaches the stream or protected wetlands. A driver may see oncoming danger from the side of the road, such as animals or an avalanche, etc. Will the computer be able to see that too? The list goes on. Yes, in some cases, a computer may be far superior to a human being, but maybe not in every situation.

Another worrisome scenario, for me, is the computer itself. Today, hackers of all levels can find the ability to hack into top secured computers, so what will it take to hack into the computer of a moving autonomous truck? It is a scary thought; someone can high jack a truck with Dangerous Goods and re-direct the truck to a different location without being anywhere near the vehicle. Or worse yet, terrorists can now potentially attack targets here in the US by hacking into trucks carrying Dangerous Goods, all while safely operating from their home country, half a world away. Of course, this may never happen, but these are possibilities we cannot discount.

blue drums sealed and stacked in line

Yes, the industry will say that they will outfit these autonomous trucks with all the sensors and equipment to make them safe and that the computers will be protected by the best security programs money can buy. But at what cost? If you put all these gizmos and dongles and programs into these trucks, that will cost money, and these will need to be updated or upgraded as time goes by, which costs more money. I am afraid all these items could make the trucks more expensive than they already are.

Again, this may never happen. But I think that we should first try to master the autonomous car before we attempt to go to trucks.

Trucks, especially trucks carrying Dangerous Goods, pose a different set of problems and risks. So before we increase that risk and put autonomous trucks on the road, let’s make sure the technology can handle all the implications.