Exit 34 off Interstate-90 near North Bend, Wash., isn’t the typical pit-stop for most motorists who quickly zoom by on their way to pristine hikes in the Cascade Mountains, skiing at Snoqualmie Pass or golf at Suncadia resort.
But if you’re in the trucking business, Exit 34 is a hotbed of activity as big rigs roll in from across the country carrying everything from dried food to construction equipment to military supplies. This is a place where air horns sound, diesel engines rumble and dust floats in the air as 18-wheelers with license plates from Maine to Minnesota cruise in and out of the TA Seattle East truck stop.
On a recent visit, dozens of trucks idled in the expansive parking lot as their drivers slid into Popeyes for some fried chicken or took a quick shower. We caught up with several of the truck drivers to get their take on autonomous vehicles, asking what they thought about the idea of sharing the road with computerized self-driving trucks.
The idea of moving freight across the country without a driver behind the wheel is one that’s gained momentum in recent years, in part for safety issues (truck drivers often work long hours on the road) but also because of potential economic savings (a computerized truck could possibly operate for longer hours).
Uber purchased self-driving truck startup Otto for a reported price of about $680 million last year, and chip maker Nvidia and truck maker Paccar earlier this year announced an alliance to work on autonomous vehicle technology. And just this week we reported on Seattle startup Convoy, which raised $62 million in funding from Bill Gates and others to transform how truckers find loads to carry (for what it is worth, the Convoy co-founders think it may take some time for self-driving trucks to emerge, but they are certainly positioning their startup for that future).
As you can imagine, many of the truckers we spoke to at TA Seattle East didn’t like the idea of automation entering their industry, and a few said they hoped to be retired by the time self-driving trucks hit the road.
Here’s more from our interview with the truckers.
“I think it’s stupid,” said Glenn Sorrells, a truck driver from Oklahoma who was carrying a load of septic tanks from Kentucky to the Seattle area and noted that self-driving trucks would potentially knock him out of a job.
“I think some companies will do it, but most companies are going to stay with the drivers because you are still going to need a driver to do all of the other work. I think you always need a human element. I think people rely on too many computers to do too much of the work, and then you will have everyone out of work and that’s not a good thing.”— Brian Larocque, who hails from Connecticut and just started driving trucks nine days ago.
“When self-driving trucks come in, hell, I am going to be retired. Ain’t nobody going to trust it, unless they have some good technology. I ain’t gonna be around it.” —Jerry Brooks, a truck driver from South Carolina who has been trucking for 38 years.
“I think of it this way: Computers crash every day, and there are always issues with computers. … To me, if you put a truck out here (that) runs on a computer, computers screw up daily. Do you really want a computerized truck driving right beside you? And let’s say it decides to have a hiccup. That’s an 80,000-pound truck coming at you. And without a driver behind it to get the truck in control again, you are dead.
If one of these trucks hits you, you are lucky if you survive. And then you are going to have a computer trying to tell it what to do? Sooner or later it is going to mess up — no ifs, ands or buts about it. It will mess up. And when that happens, the only thing that is going to happen is it’ll kill somebody. Somebody can’t just run down the freeway and jump in the truck. I don’t understand their philosophy. I understand they want to basically be able to run freight cheaper so they can get rid of us as the driver, and all they have to do is push a couple buttons, and bam, it’s on its way so they can haul freight cheaper. But when that things goes kaput, there are going to be dead people … I don’t want to be anywhere near a computerized truck. I would be scared to death.” — Chris Richardson, who is based out of Conway, Arkansas, and has been driving trucks since 1999.
“I tell you what, the truck that I have has … a crash management system. I tell you what, that is one of the deadliest things on the road … I could be driving and as a human being I can see the cars coming across in front of me, and I know how to react, whether I brake slowly or brake hard or whatever. The computer just measures that there is a car that came out in front of you, and guess what it does? It slams on the brakes. If I am going downhill, that is 80,000 pounds. If I am going down hill in the rain or the snow, guess what? I am going for a ride … I don’t like that system … To be honest, I watched a video from England maybe, somewhere out there, but they have this RV driving on its own. I thought it was pretty damn cool. It sucks, because if that happens, we will all be out of work. But, hey, anything is possible, the way technology is and everything is turning. But that would put a lot of people out of work.” —Victor Carrasco, who lives just south of Orlando, Florida and was on his way to Syracuse, New York.
“It’s just going to be like a weird thing because you are not in control of your vehicle and the vehicle takes control by itself. Nah, I am used to driving my own truck by myself. It’s a control thing. If you get a truck that’s going to go over there and try to drive itself, I mean everyone is going to freak out because everyone is used to driving their truck on their own. And you are going to get most of these people telling you the same thing. I am pretty sure a lot of things are going to change, but hopefully by that time I am retired in the Bahamas somewhere kicking back with my wife.” — James Gutierrez, a truck driver from Amarillo, Texas who was moving a load of dry food to Sumner, Wash.