A major technological revolution began last week in the American state of Colorado and nobody noticed. The first delivery run was made by a self-driving semi-tractor.
Few people noticed because the test drive looked like a normal beer delivery. A Volvo semi-tractor left an Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE: BUD) brewery in Fort Collins, Colorado; with 2,000 cases of Budweiser, and drove 120 miles (193.121 kilometers) south to Colorado Springs.
Self-Driving Trucks Ready for Commercialization
The trip was remarkable because the driver; Walter Martin, was lounging in the tractor’s sleeping area rather than sitting behind the wheel. Yet the truck drove for 120 miles on one of the busiest highways in America; Interstate 25, and cruised right through a major city – Denver. It even passed through a notoriously dangerous intersection; Denver’s Mousetrap, where Interstates 25 and 70 come together.
The Volvo semi-tractor was equipped with autonomous-driving technology created by Otto Motors; which was acquired by Uber earlier this month. Otto was cofounded by Anthony Levandowski, one of the architects of the original Google Car project.
The feat proves that self-driving delivery trucks are a feasible technology. If the Otto Truck can make such a delivery the technology is almost ready for commercialization. That will mean major disruption in the trucking industry and lots of controversy.
Is the World Ready for Self-Driving Trucks?
Otto and Anheuser-Busch; America’s largest brewer, kept the drive semisecret by not notifying the media until it was complete. A probable reason for that was not to panic the public.
So far that has not been any hysteria about self-driving trucks on the road, but I imagine it is coming. All it will take is one politician; or one celebrity technophobe such as Jenny McCarthy, to start sounding the alarm about the dangers of “soulless machines on our highways” to generate hysteria.
The people of Colorado might not appreciate being used as guinea pigs in Uber’s experiment. There has already been some hysterical reporting on the dangers of self-driving vehicles and computer-hacking. Fears will certainly grow when the public realizes that 18-wheeled tractor trailer rigs; which usually weigh around 40 tons (37,287 kilograms) are being driven by algorithms.
Technological Unemployment Fears will be stocked
A more realistic fear is technological unemployment; which is a growing problem in the United States. Walmart (NYSE: WMT) is eliminating 7,000 accounting jobs in its stores and replacing workers with cash-counting machines. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC) is planning to eliminate 8,000 jobs in its consumer banking division and replace them with digital solutions.
Otto and Anheuser-Busch promise jobs will not be eliminated because people will still be needed to load and unload the trucks. Drivers will also operate them in the city and supervise the process.
That may not convince highly-paid truck drivers who will have fears of being replaced with cheaper laborers. Walmart is already demoting many accounting workers to labor positions; such as stocking shelves and running cash registers.
Expect self-driving trucks become an object of political controversy, even as business tries to adopt them because of the financial incentives. Anheuser-Busch estimates that autonomous trucks will reduce transportation costs by $50 million a year in reduced fuel costs. Self-driving vehicles will make more frequent deliveries possible which can also increase profits.
Will Self-Driving Trucks Lead to Class Warfare?
Such talk is likely to fuel resentments and class warfare particularly among working-class people who fear job and income losses. The American presidential campaign has already been disrupted by self-styled working class champion Donald J. Trump; who talks incessantly about job loss, and rabble-rousing socialist U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont).
Self-driving vehicles and other robots will become a natural target for future demagogues, particularly if they can portray such technology as tools of the corrupt elite. A possible outcome is a rebirth of the Luddites; the Luddites were anti-technology workers who destroyed machinery in early 19th Century England, in an attempt to protect their jobs.
Many of the Luddites were skilled workers; such as weavers, who feared losing their high-paying jobs to machines. It is not hard to imagine modern day Luddites taking axes to cash counting machines, or blowing up self-driving trucks. A lot of Luddites were self-employed weavers, proud individualistic working-class types; like truck drivers in the United States.
The concept of modern-day Luddites should scare us to death; because Luddite violence in Northwestern England had to be suppressed by the deployment of the Army. Troops actually fought pitched battles with Luddites; and frightened industrialists built safe rooms in their factories to hide from them.
Disturbingly news reports indicate that some wealthy individuals in the United States are now building survival shelters; and safe rooms, in neighborhoods like Beverly Hills. History seems to be repeating itself, technology leads to social disruption and fears of violence.
Autonomous Vehicles are here so Get Ready
It remains to be seen if self-driving vehicle technology has such effects; but violence and class-warfare accompanied earlier technological disruptions. One thing is certain autonomous vehicles are about to hit our streets and we are going to have to deal with them.
Several companies are planning widespread deployment of self-driving vehicles. Daimler has also tested a self-driving semi-tractor near Las Vegas, Fiat-Chrysler and Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOG) are working on an autonomous minivan, Uber and Volvo are testing self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and London, and Ford (NYSE: FCAU) plans to sell the first fully-autonomous vehicle within five years.
If this continues self-driving vehicles might soon become the norm, and our world will be changed beyond recognition. The self-driving revolution has begun and everything is about to change.