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Op-Ed: Driverless trucks from Mexico to Manitoba: What could go wrong?

Industry bigwigs have met recently to discuss this very plan — creating a driverless truck corridor that stretches from Mexico all the way up into Canada. U.S. Route 83, which traverses 1,800 mile stretch of north to south highway that runs from Brownsville, Texas to Westhope, North Dakota and then crosses the border into southern Manitoba, reports.

Map of U.S. Route 83.  This route is part of a plan that may involve autonomous trucks driving from ...

Map of U.S. Route 83. This route is part of a plan that may involve autonomous trucks driving from Mexico to Manitoba.
Nick Nolte, Wikimedia Commons

Members of the Central North American Trade Corridor Association (CNATCA) are working towards that goal, said Marlo Anderson, who is with the association, CBC News reports. Driverless, or autonomous trucks, as they are often called, would also travel through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, through North Dakota and up into Manitoba.

A study to see just how feasible this project is will soon be underway and Anderson says the group wants to travel to different communities along the route to gather support.

” One of the challenges we have here in North Dakota is that we have a lot of energy production going on right now, but not enough pipelines to carry the oil from North Dakota to its destination point,” he said.

This puts pressure on companies transporting other commodities, like grain, for instance, that have to fight for space on trains. A separate corridor could lessen that pressure, Anderson said.

“We’re hopeful that, working with the Canadian government, the Mexican government, the United States, we can create some kind of automated way … (to) streamline that process of border crossings,” he said.

While the technology is still experimental, it already exists in driverless vehicles that use GPS and other tools to navigate roads, he added.

I have to admit that this whole thing makes me a bit nervous.

Eleven of Google’s driverless vehicles have been in minor car accidents in California over the past six years while they were being tested, Brian Fung, a technology columnist for The Washington Post reports. Google claims none of its cars were at fault in any of the accidents.

Google was prompted to make the admission after a report from the Associated Press said two of Google’s computer-controlled driverless cars were involved in minor accidents last fall when California gave the company the official nod to start testing this new technology on public roads. No one was injured in the crashes, the company reported.

The disturbing part about this, is that after the accidents, the police reports weren’t made public in accordance with California law, the Washington Post reports. Google didn’t release the reports either.

Wait. What?

When accidents happen, minor or otherwise, the public has a right to know.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Google said in a statement, according to the Washington Post column. “Since the start of our program six years ago, we’ve driven nearly a million miles autonomously, on both freeways and city streets, and the self-driving car hasn’t caused a single accident.”

Fung writes:

“Add it all up and the message seems pretty clear. The autopilot was not the problem.”

He noted that one way to make people feel more confident would be for companies to prove that the autopilot worked well at preventing or avoiding a crash.

“Not merely that it wasn’t the cause of a crash,” he writes.

Citing the Associated Press report, he notes that driverless car features were all engaged and no one was behind the wheel.

He noted:

“Understanding exactly how the self-driving cars behaved under these conditions — and in similar situations to come — will be the key to showing whether driverless cars really are better or safer than humans behind the wheel.”

In the proposed plan, trucks on Route 83 won’t be sharing the road with drivers in either dumb cars. It truly is going to be a route for autonomous trucks, an enormous artery designed to move billions of dollars worth of freight for the NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) nations, reports.

Anderson suggests that autonomous vehicles are more efficient, reports CBC News.

“They don’t need to worry about a driver having too many hours in a day or in a week. Those types of things go by the wayside because the vehicle doesn’t care.”

Anderson says he can understand why the idea makes some people nervous, but he added that unmanned vehicles have the potential to remove human error from driving.

“What we have to do is to educate people.”

One concern he hears about frequently is whether a vehicle’s system could be hacked and taken over.

“There have to be security measures set in place so that doesn’t happen.”

I would think this would be of concern, especially since information has come out that newer planes can be hacked.

The idea of 20 ton trucks barreling down a highway and carrying-who-knows-what makes me nervous. Yes, the possibility of human error might be removed from these trucks, but what about mechanical failure? What if some part of the computerized system malfunctions, then what?

I mean, everything I’ve read so far says that there will still be drivers in these trucks, but they won’t do a lot of the driving. Theoretically they are there to intervene if anything starts to happen, but what happens if they fall asleep or are busy doing something else and not paying attention? I know that can happen now, but this may be inviting more trouble.

I’d like to hear what other people think.

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