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Will Self-Driving Trucks, Now A Reality, Unseat Truck Drivers?


For all the talk about self-driving cars, it was a self-driving truck that may drive us a little faster into the future. This week, a big rig, carrying 2,000 cases of Budweiser beer, made a shipment in Colorado with no driver at the wheel. Anheuser-Busch calls it the world's first commercial delivery by a self-driving truck. Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for The New York Times, and he's also been in a driver-free truck. Thanks very much for being with us.

FARHAD MANJOO: Hey, good to be here.

SIMON: What's it like to be in one of these trucks?

MANJOO: Well, surprisingly normal. The trucks so far - the ones that they're running so far - have a driver sitting at the seat, then he flips a button and the truck just kind of takes over. It's basically like looking at someone flip on cruise control, except here, you know, when the driver took his hands off the wheel, the wheel kept turning as the road moved ahead.

SIMON: I mean this question utterly seriously because I gather there were some tweets about it this week. We're talking about a beer truck delivery. Is it possible that some fraternity at the University of Wisconsin could hack into a beer truck and (laughter) get it delivered to their frat house instead of the market?

MANJOO: You know, this is one of the concerns with both self-driving trucks, self-driving cars and generally more of our kind of national infrastructure becoming digital, becoming automated. You know, this is one of the questions I think looming over the whole sector is the security both from hacking but also from mishap, you know, just sort of inadvertent bugs in the system that could cause it, you know, real problems in the real world.

SIMON: And will this ultimately throw human truck drivers out of business?

MANJOO: This company Otto, which Uber recently purchased, they argue that the human truck driver, at least in the foreseeable future, in the next, perhaps, 10 to 20 years, the human truck driver won't be completely eliminated from the truck. So on residential streets, on other streets where it's both more difficult to drive a truck, the human truck driver might still be necessary at that point. And the truck driver does other things like unload the vehicle, perhaps, fill out the paperwork, you know, do a lot of white-collar type work in the cab.

Their sort of vision for this is that if you get this technology in your truck, you can make your truck twice as efficient and your job perhaps slightly easier. Now of course, this is the - they're making the technology so they're sort of putting the best face on this. Truck drivers I spoke to weren't as enthusiastic about this whole proposition.

So I would say that there are both sort of technological changes here but also social changes. And those social dynamics - the idea of a truck driving down the road and no one is in it might be so alien to people that we might - it might take a very long time before we're comfortable with that.

SIMON: Well, but - let me point out, Mr. Manjoo, people used to be that way about elevators. We think nothing of it now in the tallest buildings in the world.

MANJOO: It's true. I mean, it's hard to - I think I've been in one elevator that had an operator. So it's possible we'll be that way with trucks and cars at some point. My own feeling is that it's probably going to be at least 20 years until that happens, perhaps longer.

SIMON: Farhad Manjoo is technology columnist at The New York Times. Thanks for being with us.

MANJOO: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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