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For The Long Haul, Self-Driving Trucks May Pave The Way Before Cars

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Otto developed technology to allow big-rig trucks to drive themselves. Uber, another transportation company working on self-driving technology, acquired Otto in August.

Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of attention lately: Uber's self-driving taxis in Pittsburgh, Tesla's semi-autonomous Model S and the driverless Google rides that look like a cross between a Cozy Coupe and a golf cart. But quietly and without much fanfare, researchers and entrepreneurs are working on self-driving trucks — big rigs, tractor trailers.

Trucker Rusty Todd has heard a bit about them. He paused to consider a future of self-driving trucks while taking a break at a truck stop in Jessup, Md. "Well then, I'm going to be without a job," Todd said with a laugh.

He's joking. Kinda, sorta. Todd's not worried about losing his job to a robot driver anytime soon. But he said what he's hearing about self-driving trucks makes him a bit nervous.

" 'Cause not all systems are perfect. I mean not all computers are perfect," Todd said. "They're doing it with the cars, yeah, I can agree with that 'cause a car doesn't weigh as much as these things do. These things are heavy."

Todd's right that self-driving cars can be seen here and there, but the big shift to self-driving vehicles may happen first on America's interstates, in big rigs, not in fancy electric cars.

"It could likely be that it would happen en masse faster in trucks than it would in cars," says Alain Kornhauser.

Kornhauser, who heads the Autonomous Vehicle Engineering program at Princeton University, says long-haul trucks are well suited for self-driving technology. Trucks log most of their miles on highways, where the lanes are well marked, where the roadways are smooth and where there are no pedestrians, no bicyclists and no kids playing ball.

"The self-driving is easy," Kornhauser says.

Kornhauser says he expects to see plenty of self-driving trucks within a decade. But he points out that self-driving doesn't mean driverless. It's likely a trucker will still be in the cab, probably in the driver's seat, ready to take control if something goes wrong. He thinks this change will make the lives of truckers safer and less stressful.

"They can have all sorts of screens in front of them to do whatever things they need to do," Kornhauser said. "And instead of being stuck in some cubicle in some building with no windows to look out, they have a perfect view of the world as they're traveling down the road."

Kornhauser is optimistic about the future of self-driving trucks, which makes sense since he has a company that's working on automation for trucks. His company, along with others working to develop this technology, are sending the same message to truckers: The jobs will be less dangerous and won't go away.

That's the foreseeable future, but eventually, the technology that makes them safer could make truckers' jobs obsolete.

Fred Rush has been a trucker for two years and he's enjoying life on the road.

During a trip hauling a load of yogurt from Tucumcari, N.M., to Allentown, Pa., Rush, 30, spoke with NPR. He said he likes the job because he gets to travel a lot — something he didn't do much before.

"I've seen every state now," he said. "Every time I finish a load I have no idea where I'm going next. It keeps things different."

Rush is watching the automation of driving with mixed emotions.

"I'm all for it. It'd save lives, it'd save pollution. Wouldn't be a lot of wasted time, but it would suck," Rush said. "I really think I'm probably one of the last generations of truckers. I don't think it will be around for my kids or my grandkids, but fun to try it while it's still here."

And just in case the driverless future arrives sooner than expected, Rush said he's thinking about a plan B. Maybe something in computers, like information technology. Those jobs are safe, right?

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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