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June 16, 2017 4:00 PM, EDT
Drivers Share Mixed Views on Automated Trucks

This story appears in the June 12 print edition of iTECH, a supplement to Transport Topics.

As the trucking industry moves toward more advanced automated driving technologies, drivers are viewing this trend with a mixture of optimism and trepidation.

Some drivers said the technology could improve safety and reduce the stress of driving, while others expressed concerns about its reliability.

They also weren’t ready to hand over all responsibility to a computer.

“Just like an airline, if you have clear skies and are going the distance, you can use autopilot, but someone still has to be in the driver’s seat to monitor the system and take over if a system fails,” said Deb LaBree, owner of Castle Transport, which is based in Joplin, Mo.

Beyond operating the vehicle, drivers perform a variety of tasks such as pre-trip safety inspections and hooking up trailers, as well as interacting with customers.

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“I think the hands-on is still important in this industry,” LaBree said. “If everything becomes automated to a point where they don’t need people, that is scary. I’m not sure in my generation I’ll ever see that completely.”

Lawrence Jenkins, owner of I-12 Trucking, based in Robert, La., said it could be helpful for drivers to take their hands off the wheel to do paperwork or send messages.

“Your cellphones are your biggest tools these days,” he said, adding that pulling over to send a text message can take 15 minutes. “If something changes and you need to reply right away, it would be helpful to be able to check your messages.”

Eddie Correa, an owner-operator for Swift Transportation, said autonomous-­vehicle technologies could reduce driver fatigue, which would improve safety.

“If there are strong crosswinds, I find myself being challenged by holding the steering wheel more firmly. After a few hours of doing that in high winds, it is tiring and stressful,” he said.

However, Dick Pingel, an owner-operator based in Plover, Wis., said the technology scares him.

If the systems don’t work flawlessly, there’s no time left for the driver to react, he said, adding that every new “gadget and gizmo” takes away from another area the driver must be watching.

Carlos Gonzalez, who has been a commercial driver for nearly a decade, said people still can do things that machines can’t.

“I’m hearing not to expect safety problems when we have those self-driving trucks, but the reality is, we need truckers,” he said. “We need truckers who know the roads, know each other, know drivers. Machines won’t know about the day-to-day stuff. I do.”

Staff Reporter Eugene Mulero contributed to this story.