Driverless trucks on Highway 83? Not just yet, thanks

Monday, July 6, 2015

There was a story on the news feed the other day about rival driverless cars -- one owned by Google, another by Delphi -- that nearly had a collision.

"Our car saw the Google car move into the same lane as our car was planning to move into," auto parts maker Delphi reported, "but upon detecting that the lane was no longer open, it decided to terminate the move and wait until it was clear again."

Google agreed with the statement.

"The headline here is that two self-driving cars did what they were supposed to do in a fairly ordinary everyday driving scenario," a Google spokesman said.

To be honest, watch the drivers in a few dash-cam videos on YouTube and you'll be ready to turn the wheel, gas pedal and brakes over to a computer chip.

Combine poor judgment, distractions like texting and cell phones, alcohol, marijuana (legal or not) or sleepiness, and self-driving cars will come out way ahead once their reliability has been proven.

We're not sure we're ready for the next step, however.

That one was reported by Highway 83 blogger Stew Magnuson, who wrote a column in the North Platte Bulletin (http://bit.ly/1NAa7Dg) about the Central North American Trade Corridor Association's idea of promoting the highway as a road for driverless trucks to operate.

Magnuson, who edits the National Defense Magazine in Arlington, Virginia, is no stranger to technology, specifically robotic vehicle technology like that which would be used in trucks.

There for sure would be advantages; computers don't fall asleep (unless you have the wrong settings clicked in the preferences), can pay attention for hours on end, don't resort to stimulant drugs or get distracted by truck stop companions, and don't have to keep up a DOT log book.

But there are plenty of factors to be cautious about.

For one, 80,000 pounds or more -- that's the mass we would be entrusting to a computer chip to shepherd down the road at a mile a minute while avoiding other cars, pedestrians, cycles, deer, cows and domestic animals.

Are we ready to do that?

Then there are the towns along the way.

North Platte would be no picnic for a computerized truck to navigate, especially with the construction under way this summer.

McCook might be worse; less traffic, yes, but Highway 83 is our busiest road during the day, and a robot 18 wheeler would have to make two 90-degree turns while obeying our admittedly sparse traffic signals and avoiding vehicles in other lanes.

Could it be trusted to make the corner on the east intersection without clipping vehicles that stop too close to the light?

Magnuson, who was in McCook not long ago to promote his books about Highway 83, laments the good jobs, requiring no college degrees, that will be lost once computers are making the driving decisions, and he has a point.

We'd like to add that much of the freight that would be hauled by driverless trucks could more efficiently be transported by rail -- although, admittedly, north-south routes equivalent to Highway 83 are rare.

But Highway 83 has a lot going for it as a link between Canada and Mexico, and there are things we should do to encourage its development.

But becoming guinea pigs to do it isn't one of them.

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    A couple of things, first of all, driverless trucks just might obey the speed limit through our fair city, and who would the police give a ticket to if they were speeding? Oh wait, doesn't really matter the trucks that have a driver and are speeding through McCook, hardly ever if ever get stopped for speeding anyway.

    -- Posted by fit2btied on Mon, Jul 6, 2015, at 6:38 PM
  • Maybe they don't get stopped because they are not speeding!

    -- Posted by cambne on Wed, Jul 8, 2015, at 7:42 PM
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