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The absurdity of self-driving trucks and the cost to consumers

self-driving semi trucks

Daimler Trucks and Waymo signed a strategic partnership to deploy autonomous SAE Level 4 technology. (Image courtesy of Daimler Trucks)

On the same day Beep, an autonomous shuttle company, announced it would provide an autonomous shuttle for Yellowstone Park to safely see the wildlife (because people are idiots), Waymo and Daimler announced they too would also collaborate on building self-driving semi trucks.

It seems, the world is moving toward Americans riding shot gun.

The move to autonomous driving shouldn’t surprise anyone following the industry. It has been lauded as the future nearly, it seems, as long as electric vehicles have been seen as the answer to all of our faults. You know, the human fault of being mesmerized by the thrill of gasoline-powered cars throwing us back in the seat and their brilliant exhaust note.

Now, Waymo and Daimler plan to address our other fault. You know the one. The one where we can’t operate the very machines we design, engineer and build.

It’s true. Vehicular accidents claim the lives of thousands of Americans each year, and if we simply used a computer, we could save all those lives. The answer, then, is simple: Move on over to the passenger seat, grab a Big Gulp, bag of Doritos and enjoy the ride.

Wait, is that it? Waymo and Daimler plan to spend millions (more like billions) on new technology for semi truck drivers not to drive.

Yes, this is the plan.

Ford keeps autonomous car sensors clean by taking advantage of the “tiara” (aka bug washer), the structure that sits on top of all Ford self-driving vehicles and holds the collection of cameras, LiDAR and radar. (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

Why self-driving semi trucks are a bad idea

There are only two obvious issues with this plan.

First, it doesn’t work now, and well, it is somewhat unlikely it may ever work. GASP!

The reasons are pretty simple and practical.

For starters, as I write this, a foot of snow sits on the ground around my house. The roads are covered with snow and ice. This time of year, we play everyone’s favorite game: “Am I even in a DAMN LANE?!?”

It’s a fun game. <Insert sarcasm, for those who don’t know me.>

If I can’t see where I’m going and whether I’m in a lane, how will a large semi truck?

self-driving trucks

A representation of what a car “sees” using LiDAR technology. (Image courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

Why more technology isn’t the answer

Engineers and fans of the technology say it is coming, and I’m just being irrational. Of course, the computer will figure out what lane I’m in! It can use fancy lasers and augmented reality to recreate the road to see exactly where the lane lines are. After, you know, these same systems accurately map out the roads nationwide, and we develop down-to-the-millimeter measurements of each road.

This could work if, say, our nation’s infrastructure wasn’t in such bad shape. The paved roads, on a national level resemble 50 years of political leadership in this country — aka pot-hole-ridden with sections of sparkling new lines painted on old pavement with a new coat of oil. (Yes, we still call them the “oil” roads around me).

But wait, there’s more! There’s a nasty problem with, well, drivers. The fact of the matter is companies like Google have learned its cars follow all the rules of the road. This has caused accidents. Wait, what? You mean a car obeying the law causes accidents. Yep.

It turns out, to nobody’s surprise except for lab-testing engineers, drivers don’t always follow every part of the traffic laws.

For example, do you always come to a complete stop before the white line on the road in front of a stop sign? Of course you don’t. You get in a hurry, you see the road ahead, you … cheat. We all do it, and heck, we rationalize it in our heads by thinking certain intersections are better if you pull up a little more to see further down the road for oncoming traffic.

The problem with this is, of course, the autonomous vehicle doesn’t cheat.  It doesn’t need to pull that little bit forward. The technology uses sensors to spot vehicles coming from both directions, so it doesn’t need to cheat.

Sensors. Oh, sensors are the answer. <ICYMI, insert more sarcasm.>

These are the little round circles found on most vehicles bumpers. Behind them is a sensor connected to an advanced computer also connected to another sensor on the windshield and cameras to create a computer-generated augmented reality of your vehicle and your location. It is a pretty snazzy technological feature for all this equipment to work in a symphony to deliver to you a digital view of your world to make you a safer driver.

General Motors began exploring a new mapping technology in 2016 from Mobileye that could use crowd-sourced real-time data collected by OnStar for precise localization and high-definition lane data that supports fully autonomous driving. (Image courtesy of General Motors)

It’s neat! It’s expensive! It doesn’t always work. Huh?

The fact of the matter is cameras and sensors work awesome when they are clean. They are a complete failure when they are dirty. It turns out sensors and cameras can’t see through dirt, mud, dust, ice and snow, and they are spotty when it comes to rain performance. You know, all of the stuff found in the real world.

Now, manufacturers are working on addressing these problems  — like the Jeep Gladiator, which has a cute little nozzle above its forward-facing camera mounted on the grille to dispense windshield washer fluid to clean the camera after you’ve spent time wheeling on the trail and covering it with dust. Or — more likely — you neglected to get your truck washed for the thousandth time and need to see how much further you can pull forward in the Walmart parking spot.

If it were me, I’d be investing in car washes and windshield wiper fluid companies. (Why do we even call it windshield wiper fluid anymore when we use it in different ways on vehicles? But I digress.)

Just, why?

My biggest question for all this autonomous driving bullshit is simply this: Why? What is the big benefit here? Those companies are likely not saving jobs with autonomous vehicles, since I can’t see a way insurance companies would let a truck operate without a driver. Nor can I see legislators say, “hell yeah,” to the idea of some 30-ton semi truck barreling down the road without a person at the ready to take over. You run over a little old lady jaywalking just once, and let’s see how the court of public opinion feels about it.

The fact is the costs of all this research and development are going to be recouped by developing even more advanced semi-autonomous vehicle technology (see: GM’s Super Cruise or Tesla’s Autopilot, which isn’t actually self-driving) and passed on to the consumer. Consumers, who largely don’t care if they have this tech or not, will be forced to buy a vehicle with it through packages containing the one item they want or “standard” equipment.

Automakers will tout how many vehicles they sell with these advanced safety measures and fuel economy technology and how they are bettering the world. Consumers meanwhile will be buying aftermarket gadgets to disable the technology — just ask owners about the awesome start/stop technology.

self-driving trucks

Luminar LiDAR highway perception. Volvo Cars partnered with tech firm Luminar in May 2020 to provide their industry-leading LiDAR and perception technology for Volvo’s next generation cars. (Image courtesy of Volvo Cars)

Tim’s bottom line on self-driving semi trucks

Yes, I’m probably seen as the “get off my lawn” guy on this new technology, however, I simply see it as yet another reason why trucks have gotten too damn expensive. Consumers are being forced to pay for research and development of questionable technology engineered by kids who spent their childhoods playing way too much XBox and not climbing a tree.

Making the world a safer place comes at a cost — the vehicle cost, the billions needed to bring our infrastructure up to par, the additional costs of making sure our trucks are sparkly clean, the costs of parking inside a building (we all know full-size trucks don’t easily fit in garages anymore) to keep these trucks clean and ridiculously expensive repair costs when a dime-sized sensors runs $300 and your truck won’t run without it.

All of these costs all just to ride shot gun in an effort to safe lives for drivers who, frankly, make poor choices and often can’t even wear a damn seat belt (90.6% of U.S. drivers wear them, translating into 47% of people killed in 2017 didn’t wear one according to a report on NHTSA.gov.).

Seems pretty silly to spend billions to fix a big problem, not wearing a seat belt.

But, what do I know? I’m just an old fart from a fly-over state.

And a counterpoint from the Managing Editor

Wow, someone needs more coffee, and surprisingly, it’s not me today. While I think Tim makes a lot of good points about infrastructure and potential tech failure, I want to offer a quick counterpoint (srsly, he already wrote 1,300 words, so thanks for getting this far).

There is no fully autonomous technology currently available (sorry, Teslarati, you’re wrong), but it is coming. It probably won’t be soon because there are still a lot of bugs (literal bugs) to work out. But as to the why? If every vehicle operated with self-driving tech — on the highways at the very least — imagine a world without rush-hour traffic and fender-benders because someone just had to post their latest TikTok of carpool karaoke while sitting in rush-hour traffic. Driver fatigue would go down, commute work time becomes possible, less fuel is used, fewer (potentially zero) highway fatalities occur.

As to the how, that’s a work in progress. Sensor washers are surely a part of the equation — as are LiDAR, radar, crowd-sourced incident and construction reports (a la Waze), vehicle-to-vehicle communication, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, actual maps, cameras and a whole host of things we haven’t even thought of yet. I’ve even talked to cultural anthropologists who are working with engineers to program human emotions into self-driving tech — so maybe they will cheat a little bit.

Taking a human completely out of the equation is a long, LONG way off, but I do see self-driving semi trucks on a highway coming sooner rather than later — with a human driver to take over for city driving and emergencies. So, get used to having people on your lawn, Tim. And go have more coffee.

All right, we started the conversation. Now, we’d love to know what you think. Is self-driving tech the bomb diggity or the end of the world as we know it? Will it be here next year? Or in 50 years? Comment below.

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Tim Esterdahl

Automotive Journalist Tim Esterdahl has been a lover of trucks and SUVs for years. He has covered the industry since 2011 and has pieces in many national magazines and newspapers. In his spare time, he is often found tinkering on his '62 C10 pickup, playing golf, going hunting and hanging out with his wife and kids in Nebraska.

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  1. Sean October 29, 2020

    “If I can’t see where I’m going and whether I’m in a lane, how will a large semi truck?” “LiDAR, radar, crowd-sourced incident and construction reports (a la Waze), vehicle-to-vehicle communication, vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, actual maps, cameras and a whole host of things we haven’t even thought of yet.” As for today’s world, states and provinces should do like NY and ban heavy commercial vehicles from expressways during snowstorms.

  2. Sean October 29, 2020

    “The fact of the matter is companies like Google have learned its cars follow all the rules of the road. This has caused accidents. Wait, what? You mean a car obeying the law causes accidents.”

    Can you provide specific examples of a car following the rules caused an accident?

    1. Tim Esterdahl October 29, 2020

      Here’s one: https://www.wired.com/2016/02/googles-self-driving-car-may-caused-first-crash/

      Lots of accident reports out there.

  3. Sean October 29, 2020

    “You run over a little old lady jaywalking just once, and let’s see how the court of public opinion feels about it”

    Why is the little old lady walking on the Interstate?

  4. C Boyd June 27, 2022

    Autonomous trucks may be expensive to repair after a wreck. The AI hardware may have to be repaired precisely and can be more easily declared totaled because of repair costs.. Batteries have a limited distance and may not be good for long distance.Also they may have a limited lifetime, that is not economically feasible. Tractors now usually last 7-8 hundred thousand miles. .Tractors are used to drop and pick-up trailers on a regular basis. Do the trailers have to be AI compatible trailers ?
    I liked your list of challenges. I think these can be added


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