Those self-driving trucks aren't coming as soon as you thought

When Congress decided to alter certain safety regulations and technological testing criteria to promote the development of autonomous vehicles, there was an exception carved out in the rules. They wouldn’t apply to trucks. There was no logical reason for this beyond the fact that the labor unions needed to protect a huge number of truck driving jobs, and fleets of autonomous trucks showing up on the roads would shoot a massive hole in their dues collection plans. That didn’t stop some innovators from working on self-driving trucks anyway, however, and one of the early leaders in that field was Uber.

Well… not so fast. Turns out that Uber won’t be moving ahead as scheduled. (Associated Press)

Uber on Monday said it is hitting the brakes on self-driving trucks, shifting gears to focus just on autonomous cars.

Uber is among a number of technology and car companies racing toward what some contend is an inevitable future in which vehicles drive themselves.

Uber’s aspirations had included self-driving trucks, with the smartphone-summoned-ride service revving that effort with the purchase of startup Otto two years ago.

“We’ve decided to stop development on our self-driving truck program and move forward exclusively with cars,” Eric Meyhofer, head of Uber advanced technologies group, said in an email response to an AFP

While they’re not drawing a direct line from point to point, it sounds like this all has to do with Uber’s self-driving car program in Pittsburgh. In March one of their cars inexplicably crashed into another vehicle. Then, earlier this month, they laid off all of their autonomous vehicle operators there following the death of a woman in another crash in Tempe, Arizona. Now they’re going to gear back up in that direction, but claim that they need to focus all of their resources, staffing and energy on the autonomous cars and can’t keep pursuing the truck division.

Self-driving vehicles of all sorts give me pause, but to be honest, the trucks bother me even more than the cars. That probably seems counterintuitive because if you lose a truck full of cargo in a crash, it’s just material goods. Cars probably have passengers so you could lose human lives. But trucks have always been a rather ominous presence on the highways, at least in the minds of some drivers. If you hit another car, particularly in a glancing blow, you’ve probably got a decent chance of walking away or at least surviving. When a semi dragging a full trailer smashes into, your car is never going to win that battle.

Of course, that brings us back to the question of how “smart” the autonomous truck is and what sort of “ethics” (as much as the word can be applied here) are built into the system. Autonomous cars may have to make terrible, split-second decisions, balancing the value of the life of the passenger(s) in the car and the person who just bolted into the street in front of it. A truck with only cargo onboard can be programmed to default to driving off a cliff or crashing into the nearest building if it means avoiding endangering a person.

Or at least that’s how it will work until the AI becomes self-aware and all the robots wake up. At that moment everyone driving an autonomous vehicle is probably toast.