Does the driver of the future even exist?

May 2, 2016
Like many of you, I was born into a culture obsessed with the automobile. Cars have always been the ultimate expression of swagger, individuality and freedom.

Like many of you, I was born into a culture that was obsessed with the automobile.

Americans didn't invent the car. But they certainly embraced it in a way that no other nation did. For Americans of my age, cars have always been the ultimate expression of swagger, individuality and freedom.

But America's love affair with the car seems to be waning. The Millennial generation and teenagers growing up today seem largely indifferent to the concept of the car as a romantic or adventuresome icon. They tend to look upon cars as mere tools -- a way to get from Point A to Point B efficiently.

That's why when I see new car designs from Google or Apple, they look utterly alien to me --completely devoid of the character and personality that was a mainstay in American automotive design for most of my life.

And there's another aspect of young Americans' indifference to the car: Startling numbers of them don't drive.

Let me clarify that point: Many of them will drive when they have to. But a surprising number of them cannot drive at all. They have no idea how to drive a car and no real interest in learning, as this recent article in USA Today found. The story cites a recent study by the University of Michigan’s Transportation Institute, cited in the story, which found that only three in four people aged 20 to 24 years old in 2014 possessed a driver’s license. In contrast, the study says, almost 92 percent of people in that same age group had a driver’s license in 1983.

Which is something to think about the next time somebody says automated manual and automatic transmissions are popular today because young people can't operate a manual transmission: A large number of them can't even operate an automatic one, either!

All of these are more reasons to suspect that we're going to see a steadily-increasing degree of automation in commercial vehicle drivetrains. And it's likely that automation will start showing up a lot sooner than many in our industry today think.

I don't think that means we'll see fully autonomous trucks without drivers behind the wheel any time soon (although, unlike many in our industry, I do believe they will become fairly commonplace in the next 25 years or so).

Think about it like this: If you have a generation of kids coming of age today who don't give a flip about driving in the first place, and have a default comfort level with advanced technology and autonomous vehicles that is light years ahead of my generation's, then it's only logical to assume that these next-generation drivers will demand autonomous vehicle controls on all of their vehicles -- trucks included.

I think we're always going to need truck drivers -- particularly in urban, regional and -super-regional routes. But even a young driver in the very near future is going to want an autonomous vehicle control system that he or she can initiate to take a break from the monotony of stop-and-go traffic or knock out some "paperwork" on their tablet computer before getting to their next stop.

Autonomous drivetrains linked to autonomous vehicle control systems seem strange to Baby Boomers and Generation X. To Millennials, they're simply business as usual. All of which is why I believe automation will be here before all us old fogies know it.

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