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  1. Opinion

Perspective: I was a truck driver, and I don't trust self-driving semis yet

An artist's' rendering of the interior view of Tesla's new prototype electric truck called the Tesla Semi. Tesla last month unveiled a prototype for the battery-powered, nearly self-driving semi truck that the company said would prove more efficient and less costly to operate than the diesel trucks that now haul goods across the country. [Tesla via New York Times]
An artist's' rendering of the interior view of Tesla's new prototype electric truck called the Tesla Semi. Tesla last month unveiled a prototype for the battery-powered, nearly self-driving semi truck that the company said would prove more efficient and less costly to operate than the diesel trucks that now haul goods across the country. [Tesla via New York Times]
Published Dec. 22, 2017

With a bright moon lighting the hilly interstate, rock music vibrated the big rig I drove from Cleveland to Charlotte that Sunday evening. No other vehicles were around as I rolled toward West Virginia on Interstate 77.

Then an explosion shook the cab.

For a split second, I didn't know the source. The front of the rig then teetered to the right. My heart sank. I squeezed the 18-inch steering wheel as it shook violently. My wife and three sons flashed in my mind as I tried to control the 80,000-pound rig from careening into a ditch and rolling over.

I did. As I squeezed the wheel, I accelerated slightly to stop pulling to the right. If I hit the brake pedal, I could not have controlled the rig. Instead, I applied the trailer brake to take pressure off the drive and steer axles. The truck stopped after about 100 yards.

Those front-tire blow outs can be deadly to control -–– especially when 40 tons of steel is rolling at 65 mph. How would a self-driving semi truck have fared? I'm not yet ready to find out. Are you?

There have been countless national reports about how automated, self-driving trucks will soon push drivers out of cabs across America. And with the recent unveiling of the electric, semi-autonomous Tesla Semi truck, even if it won't be in production until 2019, those accounts are taking on a feel of finality.

I'm a journalist, but I still maintain by Class A CDL trucker's license, and with 15 years of experience behind the wheel, my blood pressure wants to pop the cuff each time I read reports touting successful tests of driverless rigs. During controlled testing, the reports detail how automation will solve a driver shortage and create a more efficient trucking industry. There is even talk of "platooning," having robotic trucks follow one another so closely that they cheat the wind and save fuel or electricity or whatever. Yeah, we used to call those "convoys." There was a song about it back in the '70s.

Full automation? I don't buy it –– yet. Even Tesla would keep a driver behind the wheel for now, and there's a reason for that.

Sure, an automated truck transported 51,000 cans of beer 120 miles down a Colorado interstate in 2016. Before the trip, two tow trucks drove the route to make sure no vehicles were parked on the highway. As it rolled down the road, the automated rig was sandwiched between four Colorado troopers and other manufacturer vehicles, according to a published report.

I climbed behind the wheel for the first time when I was 21 in 1990. The dilapidated GMC Astro had no power steering. (Teamsters are burly for a reason.) Technology improved during my 15 years as a driver. Anti-locking braking systems, mandated in the 1990s, helped prevent skidding and jackknifing. Air-ride suspension and cruise control made travel smoother. Power steering helped drivers spin an 80,000-pound rig into a tight dock like spinning a Yugo into a crowded parking lot.

Today's trucking industry looks like nothing like the one I left in 2005. I hauled freight across 26 states for USF Holland out of Cleveland. I never had a dashcam to see cars in blind spots. I never had an alert system to warn if I drifted from the lane on tiresome nights. I never had an onboard computer to log my hours. Those advances made a safer industry.

Still, I'm curious to see how "autopilot" would work on big rigs. How will the computer react in the dark or during a downpour when a stranded motorist blocks part of the right lane and the rig can't move because another car is in the left lane? Drivers deal with these scenarios every hour. While a pilot can use autopilot to fly, it has not eliminated pilots from cockpits. I am not ready to concede that automation will gut the driving industry.

Multiple reports about autonomous trucks mention nothing about how the technology will handle age-old issues: like blown tires sending trucks out of control or when an axle freezes after an air canister fails in the brake system.

What about battling snow, ice and rain on a packed interstate? A gut-wrenching fear is when you can't control a truck sliding on ice. Simply ask a driver. Would these automated trucks operate only under ideal conditions with a police escort?

Consider when a "four-wheeler" swerves in front of a semitrailer truck and the motorist hits the brakes. To avoid a collision, a trucker might take evasive action –– even if it puts himself or herself in danger –– after quickly spotting three children in the backseat. What would an automated truck do? If a crash was inevitable, how would it choose the least bad outcome?

While each example is simple, drivers are highly trained professionals who confront these realities when they climb in Peterbilts, Kenworths or Freightliners to deliver groceries, car parts or other commodities we consume. I have yet to see these realities addressed in any report. Facts matter. Legions of drivers, not company spin masters, are waiting.

A month ago, a headline for an in-depth New York Times article declared: "Self-Driving Trucks May Be Closer Than They Appear." This year, "companies and investors are on pace to put just over $1 billion into self-driving and other trucking technologies, 10 times the level of three years ago," the report stated.

But it's insulting to read "that trucks spend a lot of time heading straight on desolate highways." That's a bit inaccurate. Are the drivers who deliver groceries, fuel and medical supplies in Chicago, Cleveland and New York City only "driving straight on desolate highways"? Not a chance. I'd like to be invited the day a 70-foot, self-driving truck tries to maneuver into a loading dock as cars, bicyclists and people zip behind.

I'm not discounting that technology could improve how trucking companies operate. But technology fails. A small fire in Atlanta paralyzed the busiest airport in the world, canceling more than 1,000 flights and stranding travelers across the country. I wonder how automated trucks would operate if another blackout paralyzed the Northeast like the one 2003. I'd get off the road.

It doesn't take a licensed trucker to write about transportation issues. But the talking heads, academics and manufacturers need to answer more questions before we can safely pull the driver from behind the wheel.

Like thousands of bumper stickers say: "Without trucks, America stops." Don't write truckers' obituaries –– yet.

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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