About midway through the second act of the new X-Men movie Logan, there’s a scene that brings the superhero film’s vision of the future to life. Our heroes, on the run from the villainous Reavers, happen upon a car accident in the midwest. An autonomous truck vehicle has hit a horse trailer—and with nobody at the wheel, it’s hard to know why it happened.
I won’t go more into detail about the scene, spoilers, etc. But Logan’s writer and director James Mangold’s inclusion of the self-driving trucking machines makes it clear that the filmmaker understands the writing on the wall about the future of shipping. It’s a future without truck drivers.
Logan is set in 2029. That 12 years may mean a lot, Kristin Lee wrote for Jalopnik, about the future of U.S. roads. Lee spoke with Logan’s automotive creative team head Nick Pugh on how he designed the trucks.
Pugh said he wanted the machines to be impersonal and intimidating. Because of the lack of a driver, the trucks could look however they needed to look. And, Pugh said, conceivably there could be trains of containers on the road.
The change may well be here long before 2029. It’s only 2017, and already we’re seeing the beginnings of automated trucking taking over the industry. At the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show this January, Peloton Technology demonstrated “platooning,” where trucks are kept in a row on the highway to reduce wind resistance and save fuel. The trucks are controlled by computers on a “Level One” of autonomous driving.
Level 1 requires a driver to be ready to take control at any time, and features a combination of radar-controlled advanced driver assistive systems, or ADAS, like adaptive cruise controls for “feet off” operations and land keep assist for “hands off” use.
That might be the crack in the dam that opens up the flow of innovative technology that brings us self-driving trucks more quickly than we expect. Silicon Valley certainly thinks so. Amazon’s drones are only the first step in a product delivery systems chain that conceivably would involve no human interaction in between production and arrival. Automating the pack behavior of container trucking is the next step. And it could happen in less than five years.
Even if it takes decades to fully automate certain sectors of the economy like shipping, as writer Irving Wladawsky-Berger argues, the nature of work and jobs in the U.S. economy will undergo drastic shifts and changes in the interim. How those changes play out will largely be a function of what kind of economic and social priorities the nation decides to focus on during the shift.
As an interesting aside to the whole matter, embattled rideshare company Uber will take to California roads now that it has been permitted to test driverless vehicles on the road in that state. The company’s plans to get into the automated transportation business suffered a blow in February when the company was accused of stealing proprietary tech from Google, but despite the controversy Uber cars are going to be on the road sooner than later.
In 2029, the United States may or may not be a ravaged hellscape with groups of cybernetically enhanced soldiers hunting down their enemies. It may or may not be home to a cantankerous centenarian with adamantium claws. But it’s a safe bet that in 12 years the nation’s highways will have autonomous shipping trucks roaring from coast to coast.
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