business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

A confluence of related stories came across my laptop yesterday, reflecting the degree to which change is coming to a central fact of our lives.

First, there was a press release from the American Transportation Research Institute, saying that a driver shortage is the industry’s biggest concern.

This didn’t particularly surprise me. This is an issue that Michael Sansolo has written about here, pointing out that this shortage isn’t just a problem that afflicts trucking companies - it is a potential major issue for anyone who depends on trucks to deliver products that they use or sell. (Which is to say, pretty much everyone.)

What did surprise me a little bit was this passage in the press release:

Among the top strategies recommended by industry stakeholders to address the driver shortage include working with state and federal authorities to develop a graduated commercial driver's license program to attract safe, younger drivers to the industry, and partnering with the U.S. Department of Labor to formalize a national driver recruitment program.

I’m not sure that this is enough, or even relevant - the problem, as I understand it, is that young people simply don’t want to spend their lives driving the nation’s highways, no matter how available jobs and licenses might be.

Which leads me to the second story.

This one was in the Washington Post, which reported about new technologies being adapted by the trucking business to help them save money and, down the road, help them deal with fewer truck drivers.

In the short term, there is something called “platooning,” in which trucks are able to use technology to tailgate each other, riding in the slipstream of the truck in front of them with just 10 yards between them, as a way of saving on fuel costs. But in the long term, it seems inevitable that there will be self-driving trucks.

And that brings me to the third story - a column in the New York Times by David Leonhardt, in which he writes about his experience with a self-driving car.

It is a piece worth reading, because it acknowledges the technology advances while also noting that drivers have a visceral desire to be in control. (I totally get this. My Mustang is a six-speed, and I love the act of manually shifting gears.)

But here’s the passage that seemed most relevant to this discussion:

The technology is improving rapidly. Within a few years, many cars will have sophisticated crash-avoidance systems.

I expect that we will agonize about using them, out of both legitimate caution and irrational fear. Any driverless crashes will be sensationalized, as has already happened, while we ignore tens of thousands of deaths from human crashes. But I still expect that driving will be revolutionized sooner than many people now understand.

I find this all fascinating. And yes, Eye-Opening.

You can count me among the folks who feel, as Leonhardt writes, “legitimate caution and irrational fear” about self-driving technology. And, I cannot say that I am thrilled about tractor trailers riding so close to each other, or being driven by computers.

But the statistics about highway and car-related deaths remain staggering, and the potential positive impact of the technology could be extraordinary.

We just have to keep our minds and eyes open, I guess.
KC's View: