August 2, 2018 7:00 PM, EDT

Editorial: Course Corrections Are Part of Progress

In times of great change there are bound to be course corrections, as evidenced by recent developments related to innovations designed to advance the science of moving trucks down the road.

Technological disrupter Uber announced that it will cease its self-driving truck program, electing to focus its autonomous technology efforts on passenger cars, and shifting its focus in the trucking space to its Uber Freight load-matching service. That service, the company said, is experiencing tremendous growth, and gives Uber a way to capitalize on the booming freight market without having to invest more resources developing a self-driving system for the trucks that will haul that freight.

Nearer-term, however, some of the traditional trucks currently hauling that freight may soon be pulled in for service, as engine-maker Cummins has announced a recall of 500,000 trucks powered by diesels it produced for model years 2010-2015. The action encompasses both medium- and heavy-duty trucks, but it’s not yet known how many of each are affected. And the recall applies specifically to an emissions catalyst.

The span of model years affected is noteworthy; it means the recall applies to emissions equipment that dates back to the first year of enactment of more stringent emissions regulation from the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s also worth noting that the recall is about longevity; the catalysts are not lasting as long as expected, so they need to be replaced in order for the trucks to be in compliance with the regulations.

It’s a lesson many a fleet has learned before: until a piece of equipment is out there doing its duty day after day, you really don’t know what its life span might be. Real-world conditions are the ultimate test bed.

Cummins deserves credit for taking such a sweeping action. The California Air Resources Board, which first noticed the issue in routine testing, said as much. And the recall also shouldn’t be viewed as an opportunity to pile criticism on the EPA for the regulations. But it is a lesson in the course corrections that come during times of innovation. The recall work will get done, and the affected trucks will be back on the road.

The same doesn’t seem likely for Uber’s self-driving trucks. The company is reassigning people from the program to other projects, or offering them severance packages. For Uber, the course correction is toward capitalizing on the underlying business of trucking.

But, other players remain in the automated driving game. One entrant has left, but the pace of innovation continues. Who knows what we’ll learn at the next course correction.