Autonomous driving technology could stop terrorist truck attacks before they happen. Photo: Freightliner

Autonomous driving technology could stop terrorist truck attacks before they happen. Photo: Freightliner

As far as terror weapons go, a semi-truck is a pretty good choice – assuming you're the sort of ill-adjusted fanatic who spends his day trying to dream up ways to kill other human beings, that is. Trucks are big. They're heavy. They're hard to stop once they get going. And they're everywhere. Getting hold of one and deploying it against the millions of "soft targets" around the world is a relatively simple affair: Once you've got it, all you have to do is decide whether you want to pack it full of explosives like right-wing terrorist Timothy McVeigh did in his Oklahoma City attack in 1995, or plow through a packed Christmas marketplace as the attacker in Berlin, Germany, did earlier this week, leaving at least 12 people dead.

Reports are sketchy at the time, but the latest news reports indicate the truck was owned by a Polish fleet and apparently hijacked. The driver was reportedly dead in the passenger seat next to the terrorist driver. The fleet reported it had lost contact with the truck prior to the attack.

Terror attacks should never be considered "routine." But in today's world they are a fact of life – and one that seems unlikely to get better any time soon. And while I certainly don't want to side-step the horror still unfolding in Germany (a country I've visited many times as a trucking journalist and come to love immensely), nonetheless, if you're a fleet manager, at some point thinking about the potential for a terrorist attack and coming up with ways to guard against such an attack has to be a high priority.

At this point, I think it's safe to say the trucks-as-terror-weapons problem isn't one that can be solved by more regulations, background checks, law enforcement initiatives or even stricter immigration laws. None of those avenues should be neglected if a promising counter-measure presents itself, of course. But my sense is that the world we live in is too fluid and those measures inherently too porous to ever prevent every single attack. In fact, depressing as it is to contemplate, the reality is that we'll never be able to completely protect ourselves from disconnected, disgruntled "lone wolves" intent on harming others.

But, interestingly, there is one approach that could pay big dividends when it comes to keeping trucks out of the hands of terrorists: Autonomous driving technology and vehicle telematics.

In the very near future, a connected fleet manager is going to know the instant something suspicious happens to one of a fleet's trucks. Alerts will be generated if the vehicle begins driving erratically or leaves a designated geofenced area of approved operation. Depending on the degree of telematic capability, the fleet will be able to instantly contact a driver to see what's going on. And, if there is no response, remotely check on the driver's health. Worst case, the fleet can pivot to emergency protocols and take control of the truck away from whomever is in the driver's seat. Locking the cab doors or even keeping a seat belt from opening won't be that big of a stretch, technology-wise. Neither will commanding the vehicle to pull over to the side of the road, drive to a police station, or, if a bomb is suspected, getting the truck to a remote, or isolated area to mitigate any blast damage or casualties. Take things a few technology steps further, and you'll have smart trucks that simply cannot be used as weapons; they will simply "know" not to plow into crowds of Christmas shoppers, no matter how frantically the terrorist behind the steering wheel tromps on the accelerator pedal.

The technology to do all those things already exists, although it will be some time before we see any of it deployed in real-world fleet operations. Until that time, fleets and drivers alike will have to remain vigilant to potential threats and work to develop new ways to stop – or at least impede – potential terrorists.

But it is worth noting that when it comes to combatting trucks used in terrorist attacks, emerging telematic and autonomous driving technology has the potential to work wonders when it comes to keeping fleets, drivers, law enforcement officers and innocent civilians safer.

Author

Jack Roberts
Jack Roberts

Jack Roberts

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

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As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.

View Bio
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