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People are terrible drivers

The next decade of self-driving technology will likely decide the fate of truck drivers across many industries


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Daimler’s new Freightliner Inspiration Truck is approved for public road testing in Nevada.

Man, technology is crazy.

It never advanced in the ways I ever thought of as a kid – very blunt and in your face – but in so many serious and quiet ways. Digital ways. Digital being that wireless magic that runs our modern gadgets.

That same voodoo will soon be driving our cars for us; maybe collecting our waste from house to house, all with unfathomable efficiency.

In this upcoming print issue of Solid Waste & Recycling magazine, we tackle safety, and, of course safety in the waste business is most readily tied to the behemoth trucks that criss-cross our neighbourhoods. These vehicles are the reasons for at least half of the deaths in the industry.

The industry is trying. Waste trucks are getting automatic lifts, GPS, sensors, cameras – an entire digital arsenal designed to prevent injuries and save lives.

But other industries with inherently dangerous trucks, like mining, are already making the leap to autonomous vehicles. While these vehicles are working in the middle of nowhere, and not interacting with the general public, they still represent a massive shift.

Just this week, Nevada licensed the first self-driving semi-transport delivery truck on its state highways. The pictures are striking. A driver sits behind the wheel, pushing away on his iPad, as the truck whittles away at the kilometres between them and their destination. In the rear of the cab is where eyebrows really get raised. Stunning white bench seating provides a ride that looks more like the party in the back of Paris Hilton’s limo than it does a venue to transport commercial goods.

And of course this all begs the question of when we leave the driver out of the picture entirely.

google-self-driving-carThe implications of such a move are manifold. But it all raises questions about when we need to start valuing safety over salary. No such move would ever be overnight. And hopefully nobody would ever lose their job. Automation may be something that’s phased in over generations. After all, it’s still technically an experiment.

When I got into my early twenties, I thought bank tellers were on the way out. Well, you know as well as I do that’s not the case. There are segments of society that still depend on the friendly face at the counter to do help do their banking, not a smartphone.
So much about technology is generational. Just the other day, my wife remarked how difficult it would be for her to trust a self-driving car to whisk her ‘round Toronto. And I agree. It would be terrifying. But we’ve driven more years than we haven’t, and it’s supposed to work a certain way. Perhaps younger, more tech-savvy kids would be perfectly fine to be escorted across highways courtesy of Google. They’ve never driven any other way.

A simple Google news search of “dump truck died” on any given day will yield some darkly disturbing results. Drivers are crashing waste vehicles; these vehicles are rolling over; other vehicles are crashing into waste vehicles; pedestrians are getting run over by waste trucks.

In the end, it all seems that we may just be poor drivers. Ever been a pedestrian watching somebody drive in a major city? Most of them look like they’re existing in a world of their own, not driving in a public setting. They put fingers up their nose, text their BFs, polish off a Big Mac and a Big Gulp, all while trying to find that new standup comedy channel in satellite radio. Some wear ear buds, as if to further insulate themselves.

How could anything go wrong?

Driving is and has been the leading cause of death for us since its inception. We’re just not that good at it, frankly. And why would we be? A simple exam and few driving tests and you’re out the door to drive a tonne of metal that offers speeds dramatically higher than the actual legal limit. Some cars are literally able to drive five times the legal limit. And the only ones able to purchase these cars are people who through whatever means have been able to obtain more money than most. That sounds reasonable.

The waste industry is like any other. It must allow itself to remain free enough to change with the times. It must test out new technology. It must endeavor to save lives and protect its workers. Wherever we end up in the future, I don’t want the next editor of this magazine to be writing about how many waste truck drivers and pedestrians are dying out there on our streets.