Driverless truck testing: Minding your own business & becoming a cost of doing business
A fully-loaded semi-truck can legally weigh up to 80,000 pounds. Such a truck traveling at 55 mph with good brakes on dry pavement can stop in about 6 second and cover about 51 feet. Now combine those fun facts with the obvious answer to the following questions: Are the firms making the big push into driverless big rigs motivated primarily by money -- as in making money by reducing the cost to trucking firms that would buy their products -- or is it first and foremost safety?
This should concern you. The reason is simple. Those designing such trucks are in the hunt for a big pay day.
They are channeling Ed Ivey more than they are the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Ivey was the infamous engineer of the General Motors of yesteryear. Ivey was two years out of grad school and employed by GM in June 1973 when he penned a memo on Oldsmobile fuel systems entitled "Value Analysis of Auto Fuel Fed Fire Related Fatalities".
He noted at the time there were some 500 annual fatalities involving GM vehicles involving victims who died when a fire happened during a collision. Ivey used a government report that put the payout for each fatality at the time in 1973 at £200,000 apiece. There were 41 million GM vehicles on the road in 1973.
Applying analysts, mathematics and some assumptions Ivey concluded the cost to compensate victims was £2.40 per car sold and the price to make them less suspectable to have fires was £2.20 a vehicle. His superiors decided £2.20 per vehicle was too much to spend on new cars for changes to improve safety. The memo was used in 1999 -- a year after the memo surfaced outside of GM -- as the basis for a court decision ordering the manufacture to pay £4.9 billion to six plaintiffs.
GM no longer plays by such rules. Traditional auto manufacturers are watched heavily by regulatory agencies. And the traditional automakers have been whipped into playing by the rules.
That is not the case for tech firms that like to brag about being disruptors. Which brings us back to self-driving semi-trucks plus the fact the Northern San Joaquin Valley between moving agricultural products and being a distribution hub has one of the nation's highest concentrations of semitrucks traffic. At the same time, the 424-mile Highway 99 was declared the deadliest highway in the United States in 2016 based on a study of accident data and vehicle count that was conducted by ValuePenguiin.
Now for the scary part. An autonomously driven truck being put through its paces on Interstate 10 in Tucson on April 6 got into a little accident while using technology developed by TuSimple Holdings Inc. The truck suddenly veered to the left and cut across a lane of the interstate just after a pickup passed before slamming into the concrete center K-rail divider.
TuSimple filed a report with regulatory agencies as required. That report was made public in June. It has spurred serious debate on whether the firm in its push to develop and market driverless trucks is putting public safety at risk.
Of course, the spin doctor for TuSimple said safety was the company's top priority while noting no harm done since no one was injured. It should be noted a driver and an engineer were on board at the time. One must assume if a company using public highways for its test runs has a similar accident that kills or maims motorists or passengers it would dismiss the loss as a cost of doing business.
One doubts it would comfort survivors knowing that a loved one gave their all so some disruptive tech firm could dial in its software so their founders, investors, and employers paid with stock options have a shot at becoming obscenely rich.
This is not advocating that Luddites prevail. Technology that assists drivers to be safer is needed. Our highways, though, should not be used as proving grounds.
Plus, there is a serious question whether semi-trucks ever should be allowed on our highways without drivers. Take a look on what happens on Highway 99. Even if technology virtually becomes 100 percent universal from driverless trucks, you must assume all other vehicles on the road are created equal in terms of driving tech.
And you'd also have to make sure that no one can disengage auto driving systems. The next time you drive Highway 99 and see people cutting off trucks, ask yourself this question: Do you think those drivers if they were behind the wheel of a car on automatic pilot would resist the temptation to turn off the tech and freelance? And we're not talking about aircrafts flying at high attitude through airspace where there are only a handful of objects in their vicinity.
Virtually every foot of roadway in this country has endless variables. Yes, it is in the best interest of the disruptors to get the safety aspect nailed in order to literally profit by the truckload. Experts such as Carnegie Mellon University associate professor Phil Koopman that is among those who have worked on establishing international safety standards for autonomous vehicles made a sobering observation in a story in the Wall Street Journal.
Koopman noted, 'The industry is enormously incentivized to go as fast as they can" to get to market. His observation is based on the drive to deliver returns to investors has a high chance of coming at the expense of the safety of motorists and others who aren't on the highways looking to score a big jackpot. The ultimate goal -- should a "perfect" driverless truck make it onto out nation's highways -- is noble.
But here's the rub. Name one consumer technology that is fool proof. Smartphone software can go on the fritz.
Electronic timers on sprinklers can have issues. Elevators can malfunction. The same is true of driverless trucks.
Even more so when they haven't been 100 percent vetted before hitting a public street.
The only question is do you want to play Russian roulette with your life so a firm seeking to become obscenely rich can use public highways to test for bugs in their technology?
You probably would never give it much thought unless that April 6 "malfunction" ended up taking out a family of four that you knew that was driving down Interstate 10 minding their own businesses when they became a tech company's cost of doing business.