A Philosopher's Blog

Automated Trucking

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on September 23, 2016

Having grown up in the golden age of the CB radio, I have many fond memories of movies about truck driving heroes played by the likes of Kurt Russell and Clint Eastwood. While such movies seem to have been a passing phase, real truck drivers are heroes of the American economy. In addition to moving stuff across this great nation, they also earn solid wages and thus also contribute as taxpayers and consumers.

While most of the media attention is on self-driving cars, there are also plans underway to develop self-driving trucks. The steps towards automation will initially be a boon to truck drivers as these technological advances manifest as safety features. This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.

Looked at in terms of the consequences of full automation, there will be many positive impacts. While the automated trucks will probably be more expensive than manned vehicles initially, not need to pay drivers will result in considerable savings for the companies. Some of this might even be passed on to consumers, resulting in a tiny decrease in some prices. There is also the fact that automated trucks, unlike human drivers, would not get tired, bored or distracted. While there will still be accidents involving these trucks, it would be reasonable to expect a very significant decrease. Such trucks would also be able to operate around the clock, stopping only to load/unload cargo, to refuel and for maintenance. This could increase the speed of deliveries. One can even imagine an automated truck with its own drones that fly away from the truck as it cruises the highway, making deliveries for companies like Amazon. While these will be good things, there will also be negative consequences.

The most obvious negative consequence of full automation is the elimination of trucker jobs. Currently, there are about 3.5 million drivers in the United States. There are also about 8.7 million other people employed in the trucking industry who do not drive. One must also remember all the people indirectly associated with trucking, ranging from people cooking meals for truckers to folks manufacturing or selling products for truckers. Finally, there are also the other economic impacts from the loss of these jobs, ranging from the loss of tax revenues to lost business. After all, truckers do not just buy truck related goods and services.

While the loss of jobs will be a negative impact, it should be noted that the transition from manned trucks to robot rigs will not occur overnight. There will be a slow transition as the technology is adopted and it is certain that there will be several years in which human truckers and robotruckers share the roads. This can allow for a planned transition that will mitigate the economic shock. That said, there will presumably come a day when drivers are given their pink slips in large numbers and lose their jobs to the rolling robots. Since economic transitions resulting from technological changes are nothing new, it could be hoped that this transition would be managed in a way that mitigated the harm to those impacted.

It is also worth considering that the switch to automated trucking will, as technological changes almost always do, create new jobs and modify old ones. The trucks will still need to be manufactured, managed and maintained. As such, new economic opportunities will be created. That said, it is easy to imagine these jobs also becoming automated as well: fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots. To close, I will engage in a bit of sci-fi style speculation.

Oversimplifying things, the automation of jobs could lead to a utopian future in which humans are finally freed from the jobs that are fraught with danger and drudgery. The massive automated productivity could mean plenty for all; thus bringing about the bright future of optimistic fiction. That said, this path could also lead into a dystopia: a world in which everything is done for humans and they settle into a vacuous idleness they attempt to fill with empty calories and frivolous amusements.

There are, of course, many dystopian paths leading away from automation. Laying aside the usual machine takeover in which Google kills us all, it is easy to imagine a new “robo-planation” style economy in which a few elite owners control their robot slaves, while the masses have little or no employment. A rather more radical thought is to imagine a world in which humans are almost completely replaced—the automated economy hums along, generating numbers that are duly noted by the money machines and the few remaining money masters. The ultimate end might be a single computer that contains a virtual economy; clicking away to itself in electronic joy over its amassing of digital dollars while around it the ruins of  human civilization decay and the world awaits the evolution of the next intelligent species to start the game anew.

 

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  1. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 23, 2016 at 8:58 am

    It’s one thing for people like engineers to tackle an engineering challenge like automated trucks, it’s another thing for a person to hope and believe “This progress will most likely lead to a truck with a human riding in the can as a backup (more for the psychological need of the public than any actual safety increase) and eventually to a fully automated truck.” Your rabid techophilia even inspires you to imagine “fleets of robotic trucks cruising America, loaded, unloaded, managed and maintained by robots” (!).

    Having driven trucks professionally for 25+ years I know something about the profession. I imagine you, like most people, don’t. Nor have you likely given much (if any) though to what driving a truck entails.

    I’m sure engineers could design a certain type of truck to haul a certain type of product on certain types of roads to certain types of places, but that’s it. There are too many different types of trucks, products, roads, and places for automation. We could create an entirely new system of automated truck friendly factories, warehouses, roads, highways, and destinations, but this will likely never happen.

    Your religious-like faith in technology is frightening. You need to read some Neil Postman.

    Neil Postman’s Seven Questions For New Technologies

    1. “What is the problem to which a technology claims to be the solution?”
    2. “Whose problem is it?”
    3. “What new problems will be created because of solving an old one?”
    4. “Which people and institutions will be most harmed?”
    5. “What changes in language are being promoted?”
    6. “What shifts in economic and political power are likely to result?”
    7. “What alternative media might be made from a technology?”

    Source: College Lecture Series – Neil Postman – “The Surrender of Culture to Technology” https://youtu.be/hlrv7DIHllE

    • ronster12012 said, on September 23, 2016 at 9:33 am

      AJ

      “Technophilia” = the love of something that we don’t really understand the implications of…

  2. ronster12012 said, on September 23, 2016 at 9:30 am

    Autonomous trucks are just the start of it. I have seen many recent reports that automation may eliminate somewhere between 40-70% of all existing jobs over the next decade.

    Yes, I understand that rapid technological change and social disruption has been around at least since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, but this is something different. The core premise of this new technology is to eliminate labour not to produce new widgets. And if half of all existing jobs go, and that now includes many/most white collar jobs too what will keep the economy functioning?Can any modern society survive with a permanent unemployed class of 40%+ of its adult population? Who will have the money to buy the widgets produced? And given the general levels of debt who will service that debt? And if that debt fails to be serviced then what happens to the banks holding that debt? And on and on it goes..

    I know I sound like a total Luddite but I can’t get my head around the elimination of most jobs. OK, there will be some jobs required to service the robots and systems in place, but the same process applies to all those jobs, where they are automatically targeted for removal.

    • ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

      “Technological society leads to increasing numbers of people who cannot adapt to the inhuman rhythm of modern life with its emphasis on specialization. A class of people is growing up who are unexploitable because they are not worth employing even for the minimum wage. Technological progress makes whole categories of people useless without making it possible to support them with the wealth produced by the progress.” ~ Jacques Ellul (The Technological Society (1954)

    • nailheadtom said, on September 25, 2016 at 11:46 pm

      “A job”, as we understand it today has been a feature of society for only 300 years or so. Why would you expect this paradigm to continue for the indefinite future? In fact, there are places in the world where people have no jobs today and never have had them.

      • ronster12012 said, on September 26, 2016 at 8:20 am

        Tom

        I agree that ‘jobs’ are a relatively recent development as they came into being because of industrialization and specialization. Before the era of mass employment, most people engaged in subsistence agriculture,or small family business. Of course we could go back to all that but a lot of people in industrialized western societies would die in the process.

        • nailheadtom said, on September 27, 2016 at 9:45 am

          There’s been specialization since the stone age. It’s unlikely that society would “go back” to some previous form but it’s also inevitable that there will be changes in how it’s structured in the future. Just because we can’t imagine how it might operate doesn’t mean that it won’t assume a different form.

  3. ajmacdonaldjr said, on September 23, 2016 at 3:09 pm

  4. david halbstein said, on September 24, 2016 at 8:08 am

    This is the stuff of science fiction. How will these robots make decisions? Will their programming be such that they are to protect their cargo or their mission at all costs? (“I’m afraid I can’t do that, Dave …”). At what point will they risk jacknifing and decide to swerve to avoid another car in the road? A pedestrian? A dog? If there is a passenger in the cab, will that person’s safety be paramount? Will a robot truck choose to cause a pileup because it has calculated the odds of survival of its own passenger to be better in that situation than in running off the road to avoid the pileup?

  5. david halbstein said, on September 24, 2016 at 8:10 am

    And in the event of an accident (this is probably the most important issue in this litigious society) how will fault be determined? How will insurance companies assess damages? Who would the lawyers sue?

    • ronster12012 said, on September 26, 2016 at 9:04 am

      Who would sue whom? Who says that the law itself can’t be automated? It is an industry begging for it. Get rid of persuasive lawyers, biased judges and stupid juries……

      I think we will see a real discussion on automation/AI and job losses when masses of white collar jobs get eaten.

      • wtp said, on September 26, 2016 at 9:34 am

        As previously stated…

        AI is and will always be a function of its creator, carrying many of the moral flaws it is either programmed to utilize or will learn from its environment. And as it will be judged by its creator, the perception of its effectiveness will itself be a function of its creator. Much folly in this world is rooted in man’s desire to create a god in man’s image.

        https://aphilosopher.wordpress.com/2016/09/14/policebot-profiling/#comment-144933

        But more specifically to this point, jobs are only limited by human imagination. If one took the perspective of a 19th century industrialized world man, the idea that people would one day fly across the sky in airplanes or hold access to the entire sum of human knowledge in one’s hand was beyond the imagination, especially in any practical sense, than even the brightest minds of the time could conceive. Yet entire industries employing millions of people exist to do those jobs. And those industries enabled the creation of innumerable other industries and businesses employing millions more.

        What you have fallen for here, like most of western civilization, is a Marxist mind-set of class struggle, of worker bees in factories churning out widgets existing in opposition to their evil task-masters. Which is where people in Marx’s day, and those in later years up until WWII or so, saw society progressing. Yet the massive industrial factories, while they do indeed exist, are not the economic 800 pound gorillas that they were predicted to become. Economic power has been much more widely distributed, at least in regard to non-agriculture, than these stereotypes have allowed for.

        • ronster12012 said, on September 26, 2016 at 10:12 am

          WTP

          I understand what you are saying and I really do hope that you are right. Yes, the process of creative destruction has been going on for a long time and things have generally gotten better( at least in a material sense). I guess that I do wonder if it will continue indefinitely just because it has up till now.

          In a similar way, debt is normal, and has may positive attributes, but beyond a certain point reaches a tipping point and everything then changes. What was seen as normal and benign becomes something completely different.

          • wtp said, on September 26, 2016 at 10:54 am

            I guess that I do wonder if it will continue indefinitely just because it has up till now.

            Totally agree. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. It is wise to keep this in mind. But I think we are quite a ways away (see my reference to my earlier post on AI) from having to worry about this. HAL 9000 and SkyNet should always be in our consciousness but we should also keep in mind that fiction is chock full of flaws that are never seen until one tries to implement ideas derived from such.

            n a similar way, debt is normal, and has may positive attributes, but beyond a certain point reaches a tipping point and everything then changes. What was seen as normal and benign becomes something completely different.

            Agree 100% and I see the parallel you are drawing. Again, a definite concern but when used properly like any tool (fire comes to mind) the reward generally outweighs the risk. But then this is why those reaping the reward must be exposed to the risk. Socialization of either can lead to folly. Though I suppose we could say similar about risk socialization. Insurance was once considered immoral itself, much like debt.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 26, 2016 at 1:37 pm

        Many white collar jobs are easier to automate than blue collar jobs. One interesting example is construction-some folks thought it would be easy to have robots putting up buildings-but it turns out that construction work is rather complex.

        • nailheadtom said, on September 27, 2016 at 9:49 am

          Construction workers are the scum of the earth. http://nailheadtom.blogspot.com/2015/05/blue-collar-vs-white-collar-conditions.html

        • wtp said, on September 27, 2016 at 10:10 am

          but it turns out that construction work is rather complex.

          But of course the design work and the organization skills and working out the legal aspects etc. etc. etc. of construction is not complex at all. Lordy, you have no freaking idea how the world works, how it must work, for people to get along and get things done. You’re living in a cargo cult. You know what kind of jobs can be eliminated by technology? College professors. Pretty much all of the information that you regurgitate is available on-line, and without (or even with if someone so chooses) the spin you academics like to put on things. The university experience of the past, these supposed repositories of knowledge, worked in the days when access to information was limited. If there’s a dinosaur out there it’s folks like yourself.


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