Companies are already testing driverless trucks on America's roads. The technology will bring untold profits, but it may cost thousands of truckers their livelihoods.
You know that universal sign we give truckers, hoping they'll sound their air horns? Well, you're gonna be hearing a lot less honking in the future. And with good reason. The absence of an actual driver in the cab. We may focus on the self-driving car, but autonomous trucking is not an if, it's a when. And the when is coming sooner than you might expect. As we first reported last year, companies have been quietly testing their prototypes on public roads. Right now there's a high-stakes, high-speed race pitting the usual suspects - Google and Tesla and other global tech firms - against start-ups smelling opportunity. The driverless-semi will convulse the trucking sector and the two million American drivers who turn a key and maneuver their big rig every day. And the winners of this derby, they may be poised to make untold billions; they'll change the U.S. transportation grid; and they will emerge as the new kings of the road.
It's one of the great touchstones of Americana: the romance and possibility of the open road. All hail the 18-wheeler hugging those asphalt ribbons, transporting all of our stuff across the fruited plains, from sea to shining sea. Though we may not give it a second thought when we click that free shipping icon, truckers move 70% of the nation's goods. But trucking cut a considerably different figure in the summer of 2019 on the Florida Turnpike. Starsky Robotics, then a tech startup, may have been driving in the right lane, but they passed the competition with 35,000 pounds of steel thundering down a busy highway with nobody behind the wheel. The test was a milestone. Starsky was the first company to put a truck on an open highway without a human on board. Everyone else in the game with the know-how keeps a warm body in the cab as backup. For now, anyway. If you didn't hear about this, you're not alone; in Jacksonville, we talked to Jeff Widdows, his son Tanner, Linda Allen and Eric Richardson - all truckers; and all astonished to learn how far this technology has come.