The Electro-Motive Division of General Motors introduced a diesel-electric train at the 1939 World’s Fair. Diesel engines of all sizes were displayed and promoted as the power system of the future. It took roughly 25 years for the diesel-electric train to replace the majority of steam trains in the United States.

The 1939 World’s Fair also displayed the highways of the future — multi-lane divided highways with overpasses and sweeping ramps that allowed exiting vehicles to change roads at speeds of 50 mph or more. It took roughly 30 years for that vision to become the National Highway System.

Sometimes the visionaries are right.

There were a fair share of visions that came to being from that 1939 event. Some of those visions have yet to become reality. One thought was that we would all have personal flying cars and our driveways would become runways. The Harrier jump-jet and the new F-35 might qualify if you happen to be a military pilot, but the rest of us are probably going to have to wait for that vision to become a reality.

Automation always has intrigued engineers and visionaries. Something deep in the soul of anyone in industry is the desire to look at repetitive tasks and wonder “Could I make a machine to do that?” Freeing up people to “do other things” is a recurring force in invention. The business minded people have the same genetic need to make things cost less. The concept of efficiency means doing more, better, and with less.

The challenge in all this is that many times, as Jeff Goldblum playing Dr. Ian Malcom so aptly states in the movie Jurassic Park, “…your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Simply put, nothing happens in a vacuum. The concept of unintended consequences is a reality with all innovation.

The cottage industries that pre-dated the industrial revolution built skilled labor, craftspeople and tradespeople. The industrial revolution largely put these skilled seamstresses, blacksmiths, furniture makers and others on the back burner of career paths. Skilled labor became less skilled labor feeding the machines. The “do other things” goal of the visionaries is not always a good thing. Endless science fiction novels and movies have been produced over the last century on the potential downside of innovation.

Change is inevitable

Maintaining the status quo on any technology is ultimately self-defeating. Ask people who worked for the Royal Typewriter Company, or Kodak or Fuji film makers, or any number of obsolete technology promoters. Bell Telephone had a monopoly on phones that restricted innovation for decades. Zenith and others restricted development of higher resolution televisions. Ultimately, innovators won out bringing us smart phones and inexpensive large flat screen 4k televisions.

Automating trucking is inevitable. It’s not a “new thing,” either. ABS braking systems, AMTs, ECM controllers, GPS navigation systems, ELD logging systems, OBD diagnostic systems, OTA update systems, and more are new trucking acronyms highlighting further steps toward automation.

The downside of automation is that it fundamentally devalues humans. An example, robotic paint systems for OEMs were installed to increase the quality and throughput at factories. The people they replaced were moved to other roles. Painters become materials handlers and quality inspectors.

Automating trucking basically says that a truck driver can be replaced by a machine, that the work is largely repetitive and does not require human inspiration or intelligence. Those that drive for a living probably would disagree with that assumption. The visionaries believe that on-highway driving is repetitive and predictable. They agree there are “edge cases” where things happen that the software engineers have not yet accounted for. They expect that they can update the vehicle as road experience highlights these situations, and continuously improve the automated vehicles, not unlike new drivers gaining experience on the road. As an engineer, I’m all-in that automated vehicles are coming. As a realist, I still have to ask, “What are the unintended consequences?”

A simple example I experienced recently was driving north on Interstate 5 in mid-December. A few miles north of Redding, California, the highway department was stopping all vehicles and requiring them to have chains on-board as it was starting to snow heavily in the Mt. Shasta and Siskiyou Summit region. A few hours later, it became a requirement that all trucks install chains to pass that point outside Redding. All night long, safe and warm in a hotel in Mt. Shasta, I heard the truck chains clanking up the Interstate.

Turns out that during that week and the following weeks, chains were required on all of the Interstates — I-10, I-80, I-94, I-90 — heading east from the west coast.

What does the trucking industry do when their automated trucking fleet encounters the unpredictable requirement for chains? Do shipments just stop, held up in a parking lot in Redding waiting for the roads and weather to clear? How do those trucks approaching the highway department checkpoint tell the guy at the roadside that they have chains and the ability to install them somewhere up the road? Do we have seasonal human drivers? How do autonomous trucks drive in snow when you can’t see the roadway? Questions abound.

The visionaries have answers for every one of these now that I have asked the questions. There will be crews of people on call to race to the trucks to install chains. There will be human drivers readily available — a new gig job — to jump into a truck and manually drive it in snowy conditions. There will be new sensors added that see through snow and ice and can follow the road. The next software update will have it all. Really, it will.

SAE makes a big deal about differentiating the correct use of “automated” and “connected” vehicles versus the colloquially accepted (and erroneous) “autonomous” vehicles. You and I are autonomous, we have the ability to think, innovate and resolve. Automated vehicles are just that, automated. They are designed by humans to deal with operational domains predicted by humans. We are some years away from having self-thinking vehicles. But better and better autonomous ones will be on the road in increasing numbers moving forward. That is inevitable.

I’ve spent decades listening to software companies promising that errors and omissions their companies found in practice would be fixed in the next release. The fact that nearly all computer-based systems now go through seemingly endless updates is due to software engineers not being omniscient and the real-world being very challenging. There is a fix for that, though. We can automate software engineering, right? That is inevitable, too.

The nature of automating industries is that expensive, higher skilled labor is replaceable by machines, and lower skilled, less costly labor. When you think through that a bit, project out to the far future. If all the jobs are automated, who has sufficient employment income to afford to buy the products being produced in automated factories and delivered by automated transportation? That is the foundation of many apocalyptic future visions. A minority of expensive highly skilled people and a majority of largely unskilled, low-paid ones. A former engineering manager of mine would advise that “it will all work out.” 

The future is hard to predict until you get there. We are all well on the road to automated freight transportation whether or not we want to be. We need to keep asking questions, influence the technology developers, try to better minimize the negative potential of the inevitable unintended consequences. If you are not part of the solution, you will become the problem.