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October 18, 2016

The Simpsons predict the future… of transportation

Eric Barber

Eric Barber

In The Simpsons fandom, there exists a group that looks at all of the times that The Simpsons have predicted the future, including Trump running for president.

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One such example that they seemed to have missed is in episode 220 (“Maximum Homerdrive”, from way back in 1999). when Homer falls asleep behind the wheel of a freight truck but awakes to discovers that the truck is driving autonomously. The episode continues with predictable results, while outlining the fears that truckers would have associated with the use of this technology.

In August, Uber announced that it would be teaming with Volvo to bring autonomous ride sharing vehicles to the Pittsburg area with the goal to eventually replace all of Uber’s 1 million drivers with autonomous vehicles. Additionally, Uber also entered the market to begin automating freight trucks, with the purchase Otto, a self-driving truck startup. Otto’s primary goal is to retrofit existing freight vehicles with self-driving technology. Uber plans to begin services through Otto starting in 2017. In this industry, autonomy combined with the ease of using Uber’s processes could mean a huge increase in efficiency for freight transportation.

Currently, the norm is for it to take about 5 hours of phone calls to hire a freight truck. With Otto, this could be greatly shortened due to the large scale platform something like this would have. Not only would this save companies time and money, it could also save commuters time, by allowing trucks to more easily drive at night, thus reducing congestion during the day. This transition would also allow for trucks to drive in what is called a road train. Road trains would help increase fuel efficiency by decreasing aerodynamic drag on the trucks. This would work by having the autonomous trucks lock on and closely follow behind the truck in front of them. On top of this, autonomous trucks would be more likely to drive at the most fuel efficient speeds, that are otherwise ignored by the current truck drivers. The reduction of speed from 75 mph to just 65 mph would reduce fuel consumption by 21%. When this reduction is translated across all trucks, it could save 2.8 billion gallons of diesel fuel over a decade. However, this transition is not all good news, by switching to fully autonomous vehicles there would be massive amounts of jobs lost.

In the US, truck driving accounts for one percent of the job workforce. Eliminating these jobs altogether would lead to the loss of over 1.6 million jobs. Unfortunately, many other industries would be effected by this transition as well. Businesses like diners, mini marts, and motels set up across the country to serve these truckers on their journey would most likely lose their market, this change could translate to the loss of many of these jobs too. However, there is currently a surplus of truck driving jobs because younger generations do not want to do the work. With the average age of truckers being 55 this surplus could soon grow, so companies will be forced to phase in this technology. With the average age of the truck driver workforce continuing to rise, it is likely that the supply of labor will decrease with increased truck driver retirement. With the integration of this new technology there will no longer be a surplus of jobs. As it turns out, like many other subjects, The Simpsons have seemed to identify possible problems associated with the future of freight trucking transitioning to driverless. I just hope that any problems that do arise can be settled without the use of truck convoys shown in the show.

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