It was a beautiful early autumn day, and I had to make a fast run up to Oklahoma City to do a dealer trade for a Mercedes 380 SEL. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and, in the early Eighties, not much traffic on the Interstate. All in all, a perfect day on which to spend seven hours retrieving a black Mercedes with a black leather interior for one of Fort Worth’s better-known oilmen. Sadly, the trip was not perfect.
I headed home with the new car and, just south of Denton, a big rig was pulling tandem trailers in the left-hand lane. I attempted to pass him on the right but, just as I got even with his second trailer, he swerved into my lane. I not only slammed on the brakes, I had to maneuver off the freeway: He had no clue I was in that lane at all.
In the days before anti-lock brakes, stopping a vehicle the size and weight of a full-sized Mercedes-Benz S sedan always came with consequences. The brakes were oversized even for that class of vehicle; when you put the brake pedal to the floor in an emergency, they would grab and hold the tires in place. At best, that meant you would sand the bottom of those tires as they slid along the concrete; at worst, as in this case, the sudden stop would break down the tread walls in the sides of the tires. Our terminology for vehicles that had done this was “thumpers.” Because of the sound the tires made as one drove: Thump- thump- thump — and that sound rose in pitch the faster one drove. But this was even worse, in this case the tread walls were broken on the tires. As there were no replacement Michelins for that vehicle anywhere in America, a pair of Pirellis had to do as a replacement.
This was the only time in my life that a long-distance trucker nearly wiped me off the road. More important, I’m not sure it was entirely his fault; more than likely, the fact that he was pulling two semi-trailers, each 28’6” long, kept him from seeing me in his side mirrors. That kind of rig is legal in most states. And things may be about to get more exciting if the proposed “future of big rig technology” arrives within the next few years.
The October 22 Washington Post reported that 4,317 individuals were killed in accidents with large trucks in 2016. Of those fatalities, 72 percent were driving in a car, not another truck. Another 11 percent of the fatal accidents involving big rigs were pedestrians, bicyclists, roadway workers and police officers on the side of the road. In all, big rig trucks are involved in 11 percent of all fatal accidents, but comprise just 4 percent of the vehicles on our highways.
Personally, I’m amazed the figures are that low, and not because of truckers. I’m always shocked at how many motorists weave in and out of a convoy of trucks, or drive up fast and cut in front of a big rig truck — not realizing that, fully loaded and traveling 65 miles an hour, those things take up to twice as far as a passenger car to come to a complete stop. Maybe they just don’t know that.
The next movement in the transportation of goods reportedly will revolutionize the trucking industry; in layman’s terms that means it will cut fuel and driver costs. The industry’s term for this new plan is “platooning.” It would seem more logical to use that name for a sequel to the 1986 Oliver Stone movie, Platoon— and it’s to be hoped that more people survive this new venture than did in the film.
The concept is that one can “slave” two or more trucks pulling semi-trailers, using a Wi-Fi connection. Yes. The driver of the first semi is actually in control of the robotic truck or trucks following behind him at an extremely short distance, say 30 to 50 feet. That’s two Suburban lengths behind the lead truck.
As a direct result of slipstreaming the front-door truck, the first savings would be in diesel fuel, because there would be little wind resistance for the second or potentially third trucks in this connected mini-convoy. In preliminary testing, it’s believed this will save 10 percent of the fuel costs for the truck(s) behind the leader.
Now, the trucking industry has already gone on record denying that this will eliminate the need for drivers in those following cabins. On the contrary, they claim drivers will become even more highly trained; one trucking industry executive suggests that the job will be more like an airline pilot. Others have said that there will be drivers in both the second (and maybe a third unit) so that they can rotate being the lead truck in the convoy. And rotating who’s leading, and giving the other drivers time to sleep and rest along the way, means this combo truck convoy can legally stay on the road much longer at a time.
The industry is certain they can work out all the bugs involved in this new concept. Maybe.
So far, they are more concerned about other drivers on the road freaking out when they see these combo-convoys driving so close to each other so fast. On the other hand, we shouldn’t see any more drivers between two large big rigs at the last minute because they’re in the wrong lane for the exit they need to take.
Maybe we won’t see that.
Of course, when you’re running multiple rigs at extremely high speeds and with each unit pulling anywhere from 50,000 to 80,000 pounds, these units have to be perfectly synchronized. But let’s say the brakes on the lead truck are in exceptional condition — brand-new pads and so on — while the second truck’s braking system is worn and due for a maintenance update. If the first trucker has to slam on his brakes, which would be relayed to the second truck by a 5.9 GHz Wi-Fi system, that second truck may not be able to stop as quickly as the first with its newer brakes. Or during quick wide turns on a roundabout changing freeways, if the steering units are not perfectly aligned, the second truck may not perfectly follow the leader. Or what happens if the second or third truck had a major detread of one of their front tires? That could be a problem too.
A biggest concern is what happens if the Wi-Fi signal fails. Say when a sudden thunderstorm with heavy lightening pops up and interferes with the radio signal. Or better yet, what if the Wi-Fi system installed in the trucks simply stops working? Now you’ve got runaway trucks out on the roads.
We’ve all seen videos of trucks out west, typically towing empty semi-trailers, when a sudden blast of wind hits them in the side and the trailers tump right over. Now, with a truck driver on board and in control, he or she might be able to compensate by quickly slowing down. But if that sudden wind blast hits the second or third truck in the combo-convoy, the driver won’t even feel it to know there’s a problem.
Again, to hear the industry talk about this exciting and cost-saving future, there’s no problem that can’t be found, improved and corrected, and they claim it will make the trucking system even safer than it is today. But when they say that this is because each truck would still have a driver on board, and that person can take over in an emergency, their whole program turns to ash. Remember, their original claim is that the second and possibly third drivers in a platoon of trucks would be off shift, taking the mandatory break required by law. So, in an emergency situation, they are not going to be able to jump out of their bunk and into the cab, seize the wheel, disengage the slaving system and save the day.
Come to think of it, if the other two drivers were behind the wheel in their trucks when an emergency happened, they’d probably still wreck. No human’s response time is fast enough to stop an accident from happening when you are only 30 – 50 feet behind the truck in front of you and going 65 miles an hour or faster. Remember, it takes almost 600 feet to stop one of these big rigs that’s fully loaded.
I don’t know about you, but on a regular basis my Wi-Fi system simply cuts out, though it recovers quickly and is far more reliable than it was 20 years ago. Then again, two decades ago, cell phone users often drove through dead spots where the signal was either weak or overused and we had dropped calls. No big deal — unless that’s the technology you’re counting on to make self-driving trucks a reality.
Personally, I’m more concerned about trying to pass one of these convoys; the lead driver simply can’t see you in the side mirrors when you may be 150 feet or more behind them. True, modern radar and other sensors could act as a blind spot warning indicator. But many trucks we see are covered in dirt and mud, and it wouldn’t take much to blind those systems into less than 100 percent operational.
Judging by everything said so far, the best prediction is that the industry is going to move in this direction, possibly as early as next year. (Oregon has already given Daimler permission to test its system on the state’s public highways. Just a warning if you’re thinking of taking a family vacation next year in the Pacific Northwest.) And it’s likely that in short order the industry will announce that this new system is so superior to having human drivers that they’ve realized it’s unnecessary to have anyone on board but the driver in the lead truck. Remember, this system doesn’t have to be accident free, it only has to get big rig trucks involved in under 11 percent of all fatal accidents.
Now with the fuel savings from trucks’ drafting each other, and maybe having the wage expense of only one driver for two or three big rigs with trailers, then the trucking industry would probably start minting real money. Of course, the real end goal is to go to fully automated trucks, the same way automakers are promoting a future where there are loads of cars but not one person driving them.
Nothing that’s written here as a cautionary tale cannot be addressed and resolved. But that doesn’t alter the fact that, at some point, technology systems fail. They always do.
Many years ago, when we lived in Alaska, my father was flying from Ladd Air Force Base to Anchorage to pick up supplies in a C-124, following a pal flying the same aircraft. Somewhere along that flight path they came into clear air turbulence so severe that my father said that one of only two times he thought he was not going to be able to recover his aircraft. His friend said he had encountered the exact same problem, and the reason no one warned anyone else in the air was the Northern Lights — a condition that many pilots in those days hated, because the electromagnetism interfered with radio signals.
Then again, it would only take another Carrington Event — a perfect solar storm — to end all these dreams of interconnected self-driving cars and trucks quickly, and we have no way to predict if or when one will arrive. A solar storm of that size just missed earth just five years ago. The next time we may not be that lucky, and we could wind up with 200 million self-driving cars and trucks in one big pile, coast to coast and on every freeway in between. Then we’ll have one more object lesson in hubris.
© Ed Wallace 2017 Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org