The sky-blue big rigs are part of a pilot program launched by Waymo, a pioneer in the development of highly-automated vehicle technologies. Last year in Arizona, Waymo rolled out among the first ever fleets of vehicles capable of operating without driver input. Since that time, the company has broadened the scope of its work from passenger vehicles to an application that will have immediate, widespread impact – heavy trucking.
After vetting jurisdictions nationwide, Waymo’s leadership concluded that Atlanta, as a logistics and research hub, was an ideal location to introduce the newest application of its self-driving systems. While some have bellowed about safety concerns, Atlantans should embrace these self-driving tractor trailers because of the promise they hold to cure some of the nation’s most pressing transportation issues. In time, the technologies being tested on Waymo semis may be a part of the solution to the very problems currently plaguing Atlanta roadways, including fatalities and traffic congestion.
When it comes to the first of those problems – roadway fatalities – 2017 was a grisly year. In fact, there were roughly 40,000 automobile accident deaths across the nation, including 1,550 in Georgia alone. And, after years of decline, distracted driving – often in connection with texting and driving – has caused vehicle fatality rates to trend upward.
Self-driving technologies offer a solution to human error-related accidents in general, but their potential to prevent semi-truck fatalities is where the rubber really hits the road. This is because human error accounts for 94 percent of vehicle accidents. Truckers who are fatigued, impaired or merely distracted represent a heightened risk for those with whom they share the road, since big rigs are 20-30 times heavier than traditional passenger vehicles. When they crash, the results are often catastrophic. In 2016, semis accounted for more than 10 percent of all vehicular fatalities.
For that reason, the arrival of self-driving technologies will be a safety game-changer. Waymo’s new self-driving semis will aid truckers by cutting down on many of the factors that lead to accidents. It will relieve them of the need to pay the same level of attention they are currently required to maintain for hours on end.
Beyond essential life-saving benefits, self-driving semis also have the potential to alleviate the interstate gridlock for which Atlanta has become infamous. That’s because congestion is caused by a host of factors that are largely the result of human error, including accidents, rubbernecking and a phenomenon called a “phantom traffic jam” – in which drivers just inexplicably slow down. Fortunately, highly-automated technologies are not prone to rubbernecking or any other delay-inducing behaviors that contribute to traffic congestion.
In fact, a recent study found that replacing as few as 5 percent of automobiles with self-driving vehicles would dramatically reduce traffic jams caused by the human penchant to “stop-and-go” in traffic. This will likely lower blood pressure for drivers throughout Georgia.
Be it for safety reasons or as a simple matter of convenience, Atlantans should celebrate the arrival of self-driving vehicles and self-driving semi-trucks in particular. As traditionally-operated vehicles are more frequently replaced by driverless alternatives, Georgians can look forward to a day in which traffic is no longer an unadulterated nightmare and vehicle-related fatalities are far less common.
What’s more, Georgia’s willingness to be a leader in the testing and deployment of highly-automated vehicles serves as a model for the rest of the country. The fact that California firms would travel across the nation to refine their technologies in Georgia speaks volumes about the political environment our leaders have cultivated. Embracing an approach to innovation predicated on flexibility and freedom, rather than rigidity and regulator permission, is what will position Georgia to be a leader in the 21st century. The shiny blue semis that will soon be traveling down our roads are something for which we should all be proud.