Darrell Berkheimer: Driverless trucks on the roads in 2021

Some of you may have watched an episode of CBS 60 Minutes this past Sunday evening about the expectation that one or more fleets of driverless trucks will be traveling across our nation by sometime next year.

The next day, I received a message from friend George Boardman who wrote: “The idea of a driverless fully-loaded, 18-wheeler coming down I-80 from Donner Summit doesn’t instill me with confidence.”

Actually, that’s one of the situations in which I believe driverless trucks will likely be safer than drivers who sometimes “push the issue” a bit by allowing their trucks to roll down off a mountain a bit faster than they should. That’s why other drivers sometimes smell burning brakes when descending mountain areas — and why you see runaway truck ramps.

But I believe artificial intelligence (AI) computer-driven trucks would be programmed against allowing the truck to gain speed downhill.

However, with my more than 13 years of experience driving 18-wheelers coast to coast, I can think of numerous situations when the experience and intuition of real drivers would prompt them to take certain precautions — even shut down. And I suspect computers will lack much of that experience and intuition — certainly in the early years.

I admit that driverless trucks can and will eliminate accidents caused by sleepy drivers and drivers under the influence of alcohol and drugs. But driverless trucks will be susceptible to other accidents caused by sensor failures.

A good example is how the “isolator” in our small camper van failed in its job of controlling the recharging of the camper’s two batteries. Its failure also caused the alternator to fail. Then, the van’s lights kept getting dimer on my way home one evening from a short errand and test drive after the camper had been sitting for days.

It was almost full night by the time I pulled onto our parking pad in front of the garage. The lights were so dim they would have been completely out in a couple minutes. And the van’s battery had been discharged to the point that it did not have enough juice to restart the engine.

So we know that sensors are not infallible.

The 60 Minutes episode also pointed out how driverless trucks will be able to make the trek across country in two days while drivers normally require four when adhering to all regulations.

But I must question the safety of that planning.

Drivers, of course, are limited by law to how many hours they can drive each day; and a driverless truck probably will not be. It would not need to make stops to eat, sleep, take showers and call home.

Experienced drivers, however, also make stops for many safety reasons. For instance, they know it’s much safer to shut down for a few hours outside a big metro area immediate before rush hours. Why drive through an exceptionally hazardous situation when it’s not necessary?”

The Chicago area is one of the worst. Truckers talk about Chicago drivers creating a horrible mess during rain and snowstorms.

And then there are times when drivers shut down for one of the most unsafe situations of all — a freezing mist or the beginning hours of a snowstorm. No need to chance sliding off the road unnecessarily.

Will driverless trucks make such decisions?

Experienced drivers also time their driving so they are not going through winter hazardous areas during the most unsafe periods.

For instance, it’s unwise to head west from Cheyenne, Wyoming, after 10 p.m. in the middle of winter — because that’s when unexpected snowstorms can make driving over those mountains extremely treacherous. More than once I waited until 10 a.m. the next day to leave Cheyenne – because by then early morning and rush-hour traffic had made the snowy highway much safer.

And drivers face a similar winter situation when heading west out of Flagstaff, Arizona.

Drivers also use citizen band radios (CBs) to warn other drivers about unexpected or last-minute road hazards out ahead. That’s when some drivers might shut down for a short break, or make a change in their route.

Will driverless computers receive such last-minute information and stop, or change routes?

I recall heading east through Oklahoma one day when I spotted a funnel cloud or small tornado several miles out ahead. I stopped under an overpass to see which direction it was heading and what it might do. I resumed my trip only after determining there was little chance I would face an imminent danger.

And drivers will notice the smallest news events that might affect their next trip — prompting an appropriate adjustment, such as selecting an alternate route, or leaving earlier or later.

So I must question the advisability of trucking companies planning for two-day, cross-country driverless trips.

And in citing these issues, I also think about the movie “Sully: Miracle on the Hudson,” starring Tom Hanks. It presented a Monday morning quarterbacking-type situation in which the computers said that pilot, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, had time to land the jetliner safely at one or two nearby airports rathe r than skid onto the Hudson River.

But the computers were fed the complete details of the situation after it happened, which did not allow for any assessment time. But Sully intuitively knew within 30 seconds that the plane would crash into buildings trying to make it to one of those airports. And when 30 seconds of assessment time was added, the computers verified Sully’s decision.

The big question is: Would the computers have come to that conclusion that quickly?

Also, the plane’s computers failed to notice that the second engine was not working – something that Sully observed from inside the cockpit. When that engine was thoroughly examined, it was confirmed that engine had failed when struck by the birds — as Sully had said.

So, are we really ready to put full trust in driverless trucks — especially in busy city traffic?

Perhaps we should consider using driverless trucks a bit more like the way trucks pulling double and triple trailers are used. They typically go from one parking lot adjacent to a freeway outside a metro area to a similar parking lot outside the destination metro, from where local drivers shuttle the individual trailers.

I find it hard to believe that the computers can match the experience and intuition that drivers rely on in negotiating heavy city traffic — where dangers are exponentially multiplied.

That’s why many drivers go into metro areas during the night to seek a parking spot near where they must deliver or load the coming morning.

And I believe I’ve barely scratched the surface of the many intuitive safety decisions made by truck drivers, who daily anticipate what other drivers do – simply by watching how those other drivers handle their vehicles.

Darrell Berkheimer, who lives in Grass Valley, is a frequent contributor to . He has seven books available through Amazon. His sixth, Essays from The Golden Throne, includes 60 columns published by , plus a dozen western travel and photo essays. Contact him at [email protected]

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