Editorial: The Human Element for Automated Technology

Across three industry events in the span of just a few days last week, the evolution of automated driving was front and center, with everyone from government leaders to technology innovators looking ahead to how — and at what pace — automation might someday reshape the trucking industry.

Many factors must be considered, with public trust at the top of the list for Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who spoke before a gathering of state transportation officials about the need to prioritize safety as automated systems evolve. And she noted that developers and manufacturers who employ a transparent approach as their work progresses stand a better chance of gaining that trust.

At another event, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration head Ray Martinez expressed optimism that the incremental growth already underway with advanced driver assistance systems may serve to make truck driving a more attractive career, and maybe even make the job a little easier.

Increased automation also might expand opportunities for drivers, said Alden Woodrow, CEO and co-founder of autonomous truck startup Ike and a former developer for self-driving technology at Uber. He spoke at yet another conference during a panel discussion on automation. Woodrow said that his company’s focus on developing fully autonomous trucks that would travel on highways could open up opportunities for more regional-haul jobs, as drivers would effectively hand off loads to automated trucks at specified intervals. “The highway is very structured,” he said. “Most of the things are driving in a straight line in the same direction most of the time.” He added that in this vision, drivers would be doing much of the same work, only under different circumstances.

But the environment in which they and the automated vehicles would be operating was a point of discussion on which experts had different ideas. At this same conference, Woodrow’s former Uber colleague, Ognen Stojanovski, who has since co-founded autonomous startup Pronto, believes gradual evolution of a “vast ecosystem” of automated and human-driven cars will unfold as the technology develops.

Seated literally between the two was Volvo executive Jenny Elfsberg, who noted that technology may help “enhance the capabilities” of drivers, and — echoing earlier sentiment — open up new opportunities.

It’s heartening that no one raised the issue of truck drivers losing their jobs. Rather, it’s believed their jobs will get better. While we have a long way to go on this path to increased automation, it’s good to know those behind the scenes see a role for drivers behind the wheel.