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Ready for the robots?

Powered flight was an incredible technological advance that still inspires wonder and awe today. But once all the swooping, soaring and stunting was over with it, it turned out that flying an airplane – particularly an airplane loaded with passengers and cargo – was one of the most mind-numbingly boring activities a human could be asked to do.

Not surprisingly, the first auto pilot systems – relatively simple devices that could hold a preset altitude and compass heading – appeared within 20 years of the Wright Brothers historic flight and have been an integral part of aviation ever since.

In 1961, the original Mercury astronauts were appalled to learn they would have no direct control over the spaceships they'd soon be risking their lives in. Everything, the spacecraft designers had decided, would be controlled by computers on the ground.

The astronauts revolted, and full capsule control systems were added to later Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft. The move was vindicated in 1969 when Commander Neil Armstrong look command away from NASA's computers during the last minutes of Apollo 11's approach to the surface of the moon to guide the lunar lander around some large boulders and land the ship himself.

Because we accepted the idea of automated airplanes and spaceships so long ago, people have been predicting the advent of self-driving cars for decades. But, the great irony was that even if automotive technology was so much more basic than aviation or space technology, the environment that cars and trucks operate in has always been so much more dynamic and complex, that autonomous driving systems were simply not practical.

Until today, that is.

Commercial vehicle powertrains have been trending toward more automation for a decade now. And that trend has only accelerated over the past couple of years. Today, it seems clear that high degrees of automation will be commonplace for both commercial trucks and passenger cars alike, eventually culminating in fully autonomous cars and trucks capable of operating with any human control whatsoever.

The trucking industry is at a watershed moment in its history: a time when technology, regulation, economics, litigation and the simple need to attract human drivers have converged in ways that simply weren't possible just five years ago, creating powerful new powertrain systems that are radically altering the way freight is moved.

If you're a fleet manager and you want better fuel economy, then automated manual transmissions coupled with predictive cruise control systems can guarantee you the highest possible mpg numbers, day in and day out, regardless of how young, old or skilled the driver behind the wheel is.

If you're a politician who wants cleaner air, compact and powerful microcomputers using sophisticated fuel mapping algorithms and real-time vehicle performance data can consistently keep vehicle emissions within legal standards without degrading vehicle performance.

If you're an insurance company with trucking clients, advanced safety systems including adaptive cruise control, anti-rollover protection, lane-departure warnings and automatic tire inflation systems can help drivers be better aware of threats act safely, even when they're tired or distracted.

And if you're a young person who decides to take a truck-driving job, but has never driven anything more sophisticated than a Honda Accord, an automated manual transmission can vastly reduce your learning curve and stress levels out on the highway -- and might just consider turning a job into a career.

And, as recent news has shown, these trends are just the beginning. A lot sooner than most of us think, we'll see drivers handing full vehicle control over to fully-automated and integrated drivetrains to take a break during a dull run on a long, straight flat, Midwestern highway or electronically-tethered trucks platooning in tight convoy formations to pick up a free 7- to 9-percent fuel economy boost on a coast-to-coast run.

A lot of this – heck, most of this – is anathema to Old School truck drivers. But, increasingly, this influx of technology is simply business as usual to younger drivers. And the next generation of drivers entering the industry won't bat an eye at these advanced vehicle systems.

The future of trucking is already here. The only question is how quickly will it become the new normal in our industry?

TAGS: News
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