Perhaps you’ve heard of Jerry Seinfeld.
He’s a comedian who enjoyed some success with a popular television show way back in the 1990s.
These days, Jerry doesn’t do much.
He doesn’t have to, on the account that, y'know, he's fabulously wealthy.
But, he does have a show on Netflix that allows him to talk about – and to – a couple of his favorite things: classic cars and fellow comedians.
The show is called Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. That pretty much sums the whole thing up. It sounds dull – but the show is delightful. For each episode, Seinfeld (a bona fide car nut) picks a vehicle he feels best reflects the character of his guest. He talks a bit about the car (or truck, or van) and then he and his guest tool around a bit and find some off-the-path little café to enjoy a cup of Joe.
In one episode, though, Jerry said something that really resonated with me. His guest was the remarkable Julia Louis-Dreyfus – who played Elaine on that little TV show I mentioned. As they were starting out on their drive in a 1970s-vintage Ferrari, she mocked him for activating his turn signal as he got ready to turn out of her driveway.
In response, Jerry, a bit curtly, said, “A turn signal is part of driving. I like to drive.”
And I got that. Because I like to drive, too. In fact, I've always loved driving anything: cars, trucks, tractors, boats – even an airplane. I've just always enjoyed the experence, the responsibility, and having the skills to safely operate a moving vehicle in its operational environment.
But, that’s not the case for everyone. For many people, driving is something they simply have to do as part of their everyday lives. It’s just another chore to manage during the course of a busy day. It’s like washing the dishes or your laundry – although there’s clearly a much higher level of risk involved.
Years ago, I noted that a big part of trucking’s ongoing driver shortage is the fact that there are people who are born with a love of driving. From the moment they first see a tractor-trailer blasting down the highway as a child, they know that’s what they want to do when they grow up. The problem is, there just aren’t enough people like that to go around anymore, given the massive explosion in freight volumes over the past decade, or so.
All of which brings me to autonomous vehicle technology, which offers the potential to mitigate, or even eventually eliminate, both of the issues I just outlined.
Autonomous vehicle technology, at its most basic level, gives both passenger car and commercial vehicle makers a tremendous way to make even bad drivers much, much safer on the road. It would be great if every driver was like Jerry Seinfeld, and enjoyed being behind the wheel and safely driving a car down the road. But most people, frankly, are horrible drivers. They’re distracted. They’re in a hurry. They don’t take proper care of their vehicles. They don’t follow the Rules of the Road the way they should. The list of things bad drivers do, and don’t do, is endless. And it makes all of us less safe and adds to considerable congestion and inefficiencies on our roads.
All of these principles hold true for commercial drivers, as well. We’d all hope that someone who isn’t all that fond of driving in the first place would at least make safety and efficiency a priority when they’re behind the wheel at work. That is their job, after all.
But, again, that’s not always the case. Which is why autonomous technology developers are currently working on systems that can make good drivers consistently excellent, and less-talented, or less-enthusiastic drivers, much safer.
And eventually, it appears, this remarkable technology may eventually give people who don’t wish to drive at all a means to get around in a vehicle without taking active control for extended periods of time.
On the commercial side of things, my gut is there will always be a welcome place in fleets for individuals who are born to drive and love getting behind the wheel to work. My sense is, that as autonomous systems become more commonplace, human drivers – the people who love to drive and aspire to drive as a career – will always be able to find work. For starters, there are always going to be specialized vehicles, cargos and routes that will simply demand a human be in command and/or control of the vehicle for an entire trip. And I think that in that environment, good drivers will not only be able to find a job in an Autonomous Age, but command a premium salary for their skills.
At the same time, autonomous technology will eventually give fleets a viable option in place of substandard drivers – a way to haul freight on less-demanding routes with a marked increase in overall safety and efficiency.
But, for the foreseeable future, we’re going to have human drivers behind the wheel of the vast majority of cars and trucks on the road. So let’s all be safe out there, until the computers get to the point where they can lend us a hand! (And don't forget your turn signal.)