How Removing Drivers from Trucks Leads to Flying Cars

Diego Schtutman/

If we can figure out self-driving vehicles on the ground, the next step might be taking to the skies.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology and government. He is currently the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys

It’s amusing how wrong we often are when trying to predict the future. Almost every one of those “world of technology” predictions from the 1950s and ‘60s had us all commuting to work in flying cars, like a car that could fly was somehow the pinnacle of innovation. Those visions look so dated and silly today.

The truth is, building a flying car isn’t really that tough. If you modify your automobile blueprint enough, it becomes an airplane, or at least something that sort of, kind of, might resemble one if you squint, like the new Kitty Hawk vehicle backed by Google’s Larry Page revealed last week.

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Is it just me, or does that “car” look more like a pool toy or an oversized jet ski? No, the problem isn’t building a flying vehicle; it’s keeping people from dying in fiery crashes when using them. We have enough problems on the ground.

To that end, both federal and state governments are backing another vehicle-based technology actually more impressive than flying cars, namely enabling vehicles to safely drive themselves. This has been a goal for some time now, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency sponsoring the Grand Challenge competition for driverless vehicles for the past 17 years. Recent moves, however, are laying the foundation for real-world driverless applications.

The biggest one is the work being done by the Transportation Department on the Dedicated Short Range Communications standard, and the allocation of a reserved frequency it can operate within. DSRC is designed to enable high bursts of data transmission to occur between vehicles. It also will eventually allow vehicles to communicate with infrastructure such as dedicated information transmission stations, or perhaps even the roadways themselves. The Federal Communications Commission recently allocated and reserved 75 MHz of spectrum in the 5.9 GHz band for use by Intelligent Transportations Systems and DSRC.

DOT is experimenting with DSRC at its Research and Innovative Technology Administration facilities and expects to standardize on a system that can be used in vehicles in the near future. DSRC probably won’t jump to driverless vehicles right away but could be put in use very quickly in driver-assist type technologies, alerting the vehicle about dangerous road conditions or a hazard like stopped cars ahead.

States are taking an even more aggressive look at automated vehicle technology. Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania recently formed the Smart Belt Coalition to explore the possibility of using driverless vehicles to help connect those three states. The goals of Smart Belt are to “establish a high-profile, high-impact and long-distance network of transportation innovations in connected automation” and to “support testing and deployment of various applications of connected and automated vehicles.”

The resources devoted to this task include the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, the American Center for Mobility, the Ohio Turnpike and Infrastructure Commission, Ohio State University, the Transportation Research Center, the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, Carnegie Mellon University and the departments of transportation from all three states.

Where I think the Smart Belt Coalition will first find traction is on the major highways that wind through and link those states. Startup company Embark is pioneering a driverless tractor trailer, as well as a form of travel known as platooning where multiple driverless trucks travel together, feeding each other sensor data and sharing event information so if, say, the lead truck has to brake, the following ones automatically do so as well. It’s a perfect use of the government’s DSRC standard in action. Embark recently released a video of its truck in action along a long stretch of highway, at one point even passing another vehicle.

With the Embark system, humans would not be needed for highway runs but would be called back into the driver’s seat when a truck arrives in a city or town. Having a truck navigate city streets with all of their hazards, not to mention people, is beyond what our current technology can safely overcome. Whether that means humans will be brought along for some long rides or simply based in depots to ferry the big rigs for those last few miles is unknown right now.

I drive up to Pennsylvania for work every now and again, so theoretically, I could be exposed to driverless trucks at some point, especially when out on the turnpike. I am generally OK with that. If the technology works perfectly, most drivers won’t even know they are traveling alongside a driverless vehicle.

I do think a few important questions need to be answered before we start deploying driverless semis in mass. Security must be addressed for one, keeping outside attackers from taking control of the trucks, which would become formidable weapons in the wrong hands. Also, I would like to see how they plan to address fail-safe measures. What happens if the driving sensors get covered in road grime, if there is unreported or new construction along the route, or if visibility is reduced by snow or rain?

And back to flying cars for just a second. Those of you who really want a vehicle that can fly know safe operation is probably the biggest hurdle to that dream. If we can figure out self-driving vehicles on the ground, the next step might be taking to the skies, though I wouldn’t order your nuclear-powered flying car just yet.