Robot truckers are heading our way, but they're still a ways out.
An Iowa Department of Transportation plan came under fire this week, raising alarms among truckers and the industry's advocacy groups alike. Eleven of Iowa's 37 full-service rest stops would close over the next three decades, under IDOT's draft proposal. Another 16 parking-only rest areas, too, would get the ax. The majority of the closures would occur within five years, IDOT officials told the Quad-City Times. The state is pitching the plan as a cost-cutting move.
So long as people drive trucks, they'll need a place to rest. But automation could remove the human variable from the equation in a decade or two, experts say.
Truckers, a widely mythologized group, not unlike cowboys in the Wild West, were rightly alarmed. Under federal law, a trucker can only plow across the country for 11 hours before having to stop for a rest. A dearth of parking spots means some stop well before the mandated time, a legitimate issue in a gig where miles are money. Computerized log books are seeping into the industry, too, further dictating when and where a truck driver can set up shop for the night.
The proposal could ultimately slash $25 million in maintenance and operational costs, according to IDOT estimates. It's a classic case of safety running headlong into budgetary realities. And, in the short term, it could be a boon for private truck stop operators, such as the gargantuan Iowa 80 stop near Walcott. Already the "world's largest," the owners of Iowa 80 are betting on a long-term boom and expanding even more.
But the safety versus cash argument might not be long for this world.
California, Florida, Michigan and Utah have already passed laws permitting "platoons" of automated trucks on the roads. In 2016, self-driving trucks designed by Otto, a subsidiary of Uber, successfully carted 45,000 cans of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs. Semi-autonomous vehicles are increasingly in use on American highways. Self-driving trucks are already making regular deliveries in continental Europe.
Like state officials, private industry is looking at the bottom line. Trucking is a $700 billion industry in the U.S. that moved goods almost 9 billion miles in 2016, says the American Transport Research Institute. And various estimates say driver compensation accounts for between 45 percent and 74 percent of total cost. Add to that a growing shortage of truck drivers — which could reach 175,000 by 2025, according to the American Trucking Association — and the private sector has every reason to hasten its pursuit of low-cost, computerized trucks that require no sleep and never touch booze or drugs.
State officials are right to assess the future of the transport of goods. They're correct to consider technological innovation when making long term plans about spending taxpayer money. They're wise to realize that, as with so many other jobs, robots might soon constitute the backbone of the American trucking economy.
But, as in any bit of futuristic fancy, the technology that could supplant humans piloting big rigs remains widely unproven. At best, the designers have demonstrated a proof of concept. There remains widespread questions about the technology's actual fecundity in a real-world setting.
There's room for healthy skepticism.
And that's why Iowa DOT officials should move cautiously before soldiering on with any near-term closure plans — at least until the tech is proven.