The farmer driving a tractor or harvester in the field is one of the iconic images of American agriculture, especially in a state with much of the economy ag-dependent and …
Wait a minute. There’s no farmer — or anyone else — driving that thing.
And there’s no driver in that truck, no pilot in that aircraft overhead, no one at the helm of that vessel and maybe no one in the cab of that locomotive.
Welcome to the latest era of the transportation industry. This one’s defining characteristic has to do with who is steering or operating the throttle.
A spate of news stories in recent weeks emphasizes that, when it comes to driverless and pilotless technology, the future isn’t somewhere off in the distant future. Among those items: The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach are taking the plunge into new terminals equipped with automated straddle carriers and stacking cranes. Insitu, the Boeing subsidiary based in White Salmon that builds unmanned aerial vehicles, what we refer to as drones, for the military has set up a commercial division to find applications for the technology in industries such as agriculture, railroads and utilities (for rights-of-way inspections), and wildfire fighting.
An Idaho company is developing small driverless tractors for agriculture. A Bay Area company is developing a driverless highway truck. The Navy launched a sub-hunting vessel, built in a Portland, Oregon, shipyard, that will operate without a human crew on board. Paccar’s European subsidiary DAF and five other companies recently tested driverless trucks that would operate in convoys or “platoons.”
Despite the volume of stories about real-world applications and tests, most of the attention on driverless and pilotless technology has been concentrated on two sectors in which development time and acceptance are likely to take longest, and its use seems the least efficient and practical. Those would be the private passenger vehicle, such as Google is pursuing, and drone delivery of packages to individual houses, as Amazon is proposing.
The day of climbing into your own vehicle, punching in the destination on the dashboard screen, then settling back with the paper or a smartphone (the latter as some drivers do now) is a ways off. The technology for the vehicles isn’t refined yet, the technology needed for infrastructure such as roads isn’t there (and will be expensive when it’s time to install it) and a lot of people like regulators and insurers need to get on board figuratively before you get on board literally. “The technology is going to be ready before the world is ready,” Paccar President and Chief Executive Ron Armstrong said in a recent interview.
Amazon’s concept of package delivery using drones has always looked like a hugely complex, risk-intense and expensive technology applied to a problem that doesn’t merit that much effort. The headaches of programming UAVs to find a specific address, avoid other traffic in the air en route and, upon arrival, not land in the bushes or on Fido will be immense; are they worth it just so someone can get delivery in a few hours instead of overnight?
If, of course, that’s supposing that’s what Amazon is actually up to. It would make more sense to apply drone technology to delivery for businesses, which really do need that spare part to complete a job or fix a machine in hours, not days, and are willing to pay for that level of service.
Application of driverless/pilotless technology also makes much more sense in closed environments such as port container terminals or warehouse parking lots; railroads have been using remote-controlled locomotives in switching yards for years. Another recent story noted the ongoing problems, including congestion and wait times, that ports are having with short-distance hauling of containers between terminals and rail yards or nearby warehouses. Using autonomous vehicles on dedicated roads could be a solution.
The applications aren’t limited to the ground and the sky. If we want to go to space, the moon or Mars, fine, but why send humans to set up base camp? That idea may eventually prove as absurd as the notion of traveling to Chicago with the first task on arrival at O’Hare being the construction of your hotel room. We can drive a robot around Mars from the Earth. Send robots to your destination and have them do the heavy lifting.
That sounds like a great opportunity for this region’s growing space industry cluster, just as autonomous/unmanned/remote-control transport technology has provided work for companies in aerospace, marine and trucking businesses. Economic-development types, community and technical college officials and parents wondering where their offspring will find jobs should all be paying close attention to how this technology develops and how to get a piece of it. Someone will be needed to build, program, operate, monitor and fix and improve what gets us and our stuff around. Might as well be us.
Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.