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AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Straight out of sci-fi: Droid tractor trailers barreling into reality

Imagine checking your rear-view mirror and seeing a tractor-trailer closing in, with no one behind the wheel.

It may seem like the stuff of movies, or nightmares, but with self-driving vehicle technology barreling forward, robot trucks could be a reality on interstates sooner than you think.

How soon? Apparently, it's imminent enough for the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to hold a public input session in downtown Atlanta on Monday on what it calls highly-automated commercial vehicles, or HACVs.

The agency is looking for input on design, development, testing and deployment. The FMCSA's meeting notice says it "recognizes the need to ensure that testing and operation of these advanced safety systems is conducted in a manner that ensures the highest level of safety for everyone involved – and most importantly, for the motoring public."

In other words, let's avoid the world of Maximum Overdrive, where killer rigs stalk and run down hapless humans. Or the future depicted in this year's Logan, with highways overcome by speeding, relentless droid trucks that plow manned vehicles onto the shoulder.

A few people have already submitted comments online. One says, "I don't believe that any system will be able to adequately keep up with the constant change of traffic patterns in speed limits you'll find in our local neighborhoods. I also don't believe a program can be as vigilant as a driver to keep up with pedestrians acting as they do around traffic."

Another: "No government official has the right to mandate any automated trucks, taking the right to work away from safe drivers."

The meeting notice lays out a sliding scale of driverless-ness for commercial trucks, ranging from level 0, which is totally human-operated; to level 3, where a computer drives some of the time and monitors environment, with a human driver ready to take the wheel; to level 5, where an automated system does everything.

Last year, the Uber-owned startup company Otto touted what it said was the first commercial delivery by a self-driving truck – a beer delivery for Anheuser-Busch across 120 miles in Colorado. A human kept watch from the back of the cab.

As with self-driving cars, the technology, if perfected, has the potential to minimize gruesome highway fatalities, as well as traffic migraines like the chemical spill on the Downtown Connector this week by a rig that shouldn't have been inside I-285.

At the same time, concerns abound that self-driving trucks could send millions of flesh-and-blood drivers to the unemployment lines.

Anyone wishing to voice their opinion or offer data or analysis on the topic can sound off from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta, 265 Peachtree Street NE, in the Regency Ballroom. The listening session can also be viewed by webcast. Comments can be submitted by following the instructions here.

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