Truckers have long been the lone eagles of the Interstate system. Cowboys of the highway you could say. Not everyone understands the lure of the road, the open arms of the trunk highway, the gentle embrace of County Road D, the sweet Loen of the turnpike or the urgent bidding of the freeway as robot Tom Servo told us when he became a trucker while mocking the “movie” Riding with Death on Mystery Science Theater back in 1997. He had found a trucker body maker in the Yellow Pages and Servo may have been the first robot to become a trucker (and whatever you do don’t mock his new butt) but now Servo has company.

Driverless Trucks

Driverless vehicles are here and are being tested. The test does not always go well, which is why they are not available for the public just yet. That has not stopped Silicon Valley-based from moving forward with a serious real world test of their technology by having their AI system called SLAM (simultaneous location and mapping) control a loaded semi on a cross country trip. A safety driver and engineer were also on board for the trip but the plan was for SLAM to do the driving. 

A truck full of Land O’ Lakes butter left a distribution center in Tulare, California and drove 2,800 miles to deliver its wares to another distribution hub in Quakertown, Pennsylvania which is between Philadelphia and Allentown. The AI system handled nearly the entire 2,800 mile journey with the human safety driver only taking over for federally mandated breaks and to refuel the vehicle. The journey was done primarily on Interstate highways so it did not have to navigate city streets. For now the human trucker will still be needed for that.

Making long-haul journeys to distribution hubs would be an ideal place to start as many of these locations are located close to major highways and require a long and monotonous trip. Just think of all of the warehouses that line I-83. By introducing AI to this it has the potential to save fleet operators a lot of money and potentially reduce the cost of goods. 

Of course this is not the first instance of AI handling a big rig. In December 2016 a truck full of Budweiser beer made a 120 mile journey in from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, Colorado. This is however the first cross country trek made primarily by AI with a full load of freight. Other cross country trips have been made but have required human intervention at some point during the trip or carried no freight.

The Journey

The trip took 3 days to complete and SLAM was put to the test. It had to operate in both daytime and nighttime, deal with road construction, major changes in altitude and some pretty bad weather too with both rain and snow. Radar, lidar and cameras allowed SLAM to “see” where it was going. Even AI cars are unproven in inclement weather so this feat was quite impressive. 

So, what potentially did SLAM have to deal with? The truck followed I-15 and I-70 mostly which took it through Las Vegas, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Indianapolis and Columbus on its journey right before Thanksgiving. It would have to cross the Sierra Nevada, Rocky and Appalachian mountain ranges and deal with the unpredictable weather that comes in those high elevations including the snowiest November Denver has seen in over two decades. SLAM even visited our area while following the PA Turnpike before following I-81/78 from Harrisburg. Maybe you drove by it at some point? That is a lot of open space with some of America’s biggest cities mixed in so SLAM was exposed to a bit of everything and it seems to have passed with flying colors.

Truckers Out Of A Job?

Will the truck driver now no longer be needed? AI at the very least will help to make those lone eagles of the Interstate’s jobs just a little bit easier for now but there is a very good chance that within the next generation the goods that we order will be delivered by autonomous vehicles. With electric trucks also beginning to see service it will make delivering goods potentially cheaper and much more environmentally friendly. With no need for human drivers there would be no need for federally mandated rests, which means goods would arrive quicker.

What makes SLAM and’s technology more impressive is that is can be added to existing trucks, meaning a special truck will not need to be manufactured. No timeline has been given for the commercial release of this technology but it is more than likely that within the next decade this will be a reality. AI has come a long way in the past few years and can do far more now than just flipping burgers.

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