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Pop culture has long obsessed over visions of the future, endlessly speculating on how our lives might look in 50… 100… 200… even 1,000 years through the mediums of film, television, and literature.
They pose such question as Will we one day commute to work in a Jetsons-esque space pod? Will our houses be cleaned, our cars washed, and our shoes shined by programmable, lovable cyborgs? Will we ever find intelligent life on another planet? And, most importantly, when will the flying skateboards from Back to the Future be available for purchase!?
Although these gaudy depictions of space houses and robot friends (who may or may not be plotting total world domination) undoubtedly capture our imagination as children, as we grow we learn that they are – and will always remain – fiction. And so we give up our dreams of flying our skateboard through the mall with our robot clique, and instead settle into the banality of everyday living in homes where the closest thing to futuristic fantasy is the cold company of a Roomba.
The future is closer than it appears
Or at least, that’s what I thought up until Tuesday. On May 5, 2015 I had the distinct honor to observe an event that I can say without exaggeration, irony, or sarcasm provided a real glimpse into how our future will be shaped. One could make a compelling case to call it the single most important event in the recent history of trucking, and possibly transportation for that matter. On the parapets of the Hoover Dam, a true masterpiece of ingenuity made its debut. Fittingly, this engineering marvel was welcomed by a show of mammoth proportions, employing dozens of projectors staged at the base of the dam and earning a Guinness World Record for greatest light output in a projected image.
First autonomous truck ever
The vehicle observed by hundreds of international media on May 5 is called the Freightliner Inspiration Truck. It is the first autonomous commercial vehicle ever to be licensed to operate on an open public highway. The Governor of Nevada himself officially issued the truck a real, valid state license plate.
In real-world terms this means that the Inspiration Truck, which ostensibly drives itself, can be operated on public roads in Nevada without the police arresting the driver for reckless behavior if he’s observed knitting a sweater rather than steering.
The Inspiration Truck is rated at Autonomy Level 3 since its steering system can operate autonomously under certain conditions using cameras to track the road lines and other vehicles.
This is one step up from, for example, the technology that uses radar to detect moving objects and signals the vehicle to apply the brakes to avoid a collision. The next autonomy level 4 would mean that a driver, if present, would input a destination, press “GO,” and retire to the back seat for a nap or Game of Thrones marathon.
Changing the game by pushing a small button
The day after the reveal, I jumped on the chance to take a ride in the Inspiration Truck. To the untrained eye, it looks just like a Freightliner Cascadia with a few futuristic additions, not to mention a white leather upholstered interior that Captain Kirk would have admired.
In fact, the beginning of my ride-a-long was completely unremarkable. The driver pulled out of the Las Vegas Speedway onto a side road and navigated onto the highway the old fashioned way. Just when my curiosity was beginning to wane, the driver pushed a small button on the dash and changed the game.
With the highway pilot system engaged, he removed his hands and feet from their places on steering wheel and pedals, waving his arms and tapping his toes to prove they were no longer influencing the truck. The wheel continued to move, and the truck continued to accelerate and brake of its own accord, even though the wind was whipping across the highway.
My instincts told me to be wary of this man, for he clearly had made an ally of some ghost or spirit who was now driving the truck for him. However, as the driver spoke in more detail about the systems allowing the truck to drive autonomously, reason returned. After all, where would a ghost get a CDL? That would just be silly.
Sitting in a truck that no one was steering
Admittedly, sitting in a Class-8 truck that no one was steering initially made me nervous. The driver on the other hand, looked completely relaxed as he explained how Highway Pilot reduces operator fatigue while increasing fuel efficiency. After the initial shock wore off, the gravity of what I was witnessing began to set in. My head swam with images of all the delectable two-handed foods now available to drivers that were previously laughable: sushi, pasta, ribeye steak, a whole roast chicken.
More and more possibilities presented themselves and multiplied, creating a vision for the future that was once again bright and exciting. As I watched the steering wheel rhythmically moving left and right unaided by a human hand, I smiled and started picking out names for my robot pals.