With self-driving vehicles zipping around communities like Mountain View, CA as part of Google’s self-driving car pilot program, and transportation industry innovator Uber acquiring Otto, a startup dedicated to “rethinking transportation”, it was only a matter of time before self-driving vehicles started becoming more and more integrated into real-world freeways, interstates and transit systems. While fear prevails that this revolution will eliminate thousands of jobs in the commercial transportation industry, it’s not too difficult to understand that self-driving cars and trucks will make vehicular transport safer and, possibly, more sustainable. Self-driving cars may even help cut down on pollution through more efficient fuel usage.
Transporting goods by vehicle is costly and complicated, so it’s no surprise, then, that the largest beer manufacturer in the world was the first to contract a shipment via self-driving car. Anheuser-Busch has a long and illustrious history of innovation in the transportation industry, which makes sense: they have a vested interest in assuring the quality of their product isn’t compromised and that the beer tastes just as good as it did off the line when it arrives at its destination. The 120-mile journey from Loveland to Colorado Springs, Colorado was met with concern by critics: Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Association, conceded that self-driving vehicles are likely safer and more efficient, but questioned turning a 40-ton trucking rig over to a computer. Clearly, some wrinkles still need to be ironed out.
While to some degree autonomous vehicles are inevitable, they will still require considerable human intervention. The driver who accompanied the Budweiser shipment along I-25’s Northern Colorado corridor never took the wheel, but he would have needed to had the shipment involved navigating city or suburban streets. While the technology is clearly already evolving, drivers don’t need to worry about their jobs disappearing anytime soon. The jump from a self-driving truck that can navigate interstate traffic and one that can move about easily throughout at American city at the height of rush hour is “a pretty big leap” says Otto co-founder Lior Ron.
Eventually, though, self-driving cars will become the default for drivers, who can spend their time commuting perhaps practicing their yoga, as Walt Martin, the driver who accompanied the 50,000-beer delivery to Colorado Springs joked. Really, though, if you didn’t have to worry about driving your car, how much more effectively could you use your commuting time? With the vehicle in charge, you can do nearly anything: catch up on sleep, get some work done preemptively, Skype with your family, enjoy some reading…the options are fairly limitless. And as demonstrated in this excellent presentation by CGP Grey, computers drive cars much better than humans do. When the self-driving car revolution really takes off, this author is ready to sit back and enjoy the ride.