Taking It Slow on the Road to Autonomous Trucks

May 2016, - Editorial

by Deborah Lockridge, Editor-in-Chief - Also by this author

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Deborah Lockridge
Deborah Lockridge

No technology will automate away more jobs — or drive more economic efficiency — than the driverless truck,” espouses Ryan Peterson, CEO of Flexport, a customs brokerage and freight forwarder, writing about Europe’s recent platooning challenge on

In the challenge, six autonomous platoons of two or three trucks each traveled to Rotterdam, Netherlands, from Sweden, Germany, and Belgium. The demo means we’re just a step away from driverless trucks, Peterson contends, and predicts that the loss of jobs when they hit the road “will be a devastating blow to the economy.”

Not so fast, Ryan.

At every autonomous or platooning announcement or demo I have attended, manufacturers emphasized that a driver is still needed in the truck. After all, we’ve had automatic pilots on planes for some time now, but a pilot is still required to be on duty, just in case.

In his new book “Smarter Faster Better,” Charles Duhigg writes of the 2009 crash of Air France 447. After flying smoothly on autopilot for more than 10 hours, the Airbus A330’s pitot tubes, which measure airspeed, became clogged with ice. Unable to determine airspeed, the autopilot turned off and the pilot took over the controls.

For some reason, he pulled back on the command stick, and as the plane ascended, it started to lose lift. A stall warning sounded. The pilot should have started descending to get thicker air under the wings, but instead continued ascending. Cockpit voice recordings and data indicate that neither he nor his copilot appeared to fully grasp what was happening, and the plane stalled and plummeted into the Atlantic, killing all 228 aboard.

While there were many factors contributing to the crash, Duhigg focuses on a couple of mental conditions that likely were at play: cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking. “Studies … show errors are particularly likely when people are forced to toggle between automaticity and focus,” he writes.

There is significant evidence, he says, that “[the pilot] was in the grip of what’s known as ‘cognitive tunneling’ — a mental glitch that sometimes occurs when our brains are forced to transition abruptly from relaxed automation to panicked attention.”

David Strayer, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Utah, explains in Duhigg’s book that you can think about your brain’s attention span like a spotlight that can go wide and diffused, or tight and focused. When we allow automated systems to pay attention for us, our brains dim that spotlight and let it swing wherever it wants.

“But then, bam, some kind of emergency happens … and suddenly the spotlight in your head has to ramp up all of a sudden and, at first, it doesn’t know where to shine,” Strayer explains. “So the brain’s instinct is to force it as bright as possible on the most obvious stimuli … even if that’s not the best choice. That’s when cognitive tunneling happens.”

The most obvious stimulus for the pilot was the monitor in front of him showing the plane was not level. The pilot became so focused on getting that icon level, he failed to notice he was still pulling back on the control stick and lifting the plane’s nose. That mistake was compounded by another mental miscue, reactive thinking. The pilot fell back on a reaction he had practiced repeatedly, a maneuver designed for an aborted landing, which pushes a plane’s thrust to maximum while the pilot raises the nose. But it was exactly the wrong thing to do. The plane never recovered from the stall.

Strayer has studied drivers of cars using cruise control and automatic braking systems. When the unexpected happens, when the car skids or you have to brake suddenly, reactive thinking takes over. And that reaction — like that of the Air France pilot — may not be the right one to avoid a crash.

While there are many benefits to “driver assist” technologies and platooning, this is just one of many things that need to be considered as we move forward with autonomous technologies. So don’t give up that CDL anytime soon.


  1. 1. BarbRRB [ May 17, 2016 @ 05:26AM ]

    Great article! In a perfect world, autonomous vehicles, wow this would be great. Needless to say, we are far from it. Seen a news report with a hacker showing how easy it was to hack a remote car with no problem. He took over the vehicle. I love technology don't get me wrong. Everything in our lives has gone to technology. Then, I remember wise words, don't put all your eggs in one basket. It is horrifying to think of living without technology for one week. Using a credit or debit card, sorry. Some business operate solely through the internet. What a fiasco if and when it does take place.

  2. 2. Art [ June 10, 2016 @ 05:57AM ]

    Great article on the autonomous trucks issue. Right on point.

    Another issue is 'driver assist' technology. The features like side-monitoring sound wonderful. However they also produce the same issues you talk about regarding autopilot, especially when the driver switches from one vehicle to another. Several friends of mine who own autos with side-monitoring systems have said that when they have rented cars or driven other cars that don't have the technology, they find that they are proceeding into a maneuver such as lane-changing before they have properly checked for clearance as they would have done before they had experience with the side-monitoring systems. They have very quickly become dependent on the technology to do the job for them.

    Keep up the good work.


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