Google's test vehicles for its self-driving technology are a Lexus and a Prius. That suggests that Google sees self-driving as a technology for passenger cars. But self-driving technology will almost certainly affect industry and commerce first. And through that process, we'll be able to get a first taste of what the future holds before it actually hits us.
There are a lot of reasons to think that the road to self-driving passenger cars runs through freight. Trucking involves mostly highway driving. Ferrying cargo from one place to another doesn't involve nearly as many people as shuttling an entire family to the movies. And unlike consumers, companies are motivated by a looming business problem: a shortage of drivers. By some estimates, the industry lacks some 30,000 truckers, with that figure expected to grow to nearly a quarter-million by 2022.
It's not hard to imagine self-driving trucks streamlining operations for companies that depend on supply-chain efficiency — businesses like Wal-Mart or Amazon, the latter of which is in the midst of trimming as much time as possible off shipping.
Some businesses have moved quickly to adopt vehicle autonomy. Caterpillar plans to debut a fleet of 240-ton mining trucks in the coming years that will be able to drive themselves. Meanwhile, the nation's biggest trucking group intends to meet next month to figure out its own plan. Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Associations, thinks that safety features like automatic braking will gradually roll out to the country's trucks over the next decade, but that they'll be quickly superseded by fully autonomous trucks after that.
"Connected vehicles are a potential phase-in for autonomous vehicles," he said. "It won't last long, in my mind."
All that raises questions about the country's existing pool of 5.7 million truck drivers. While unmanned trucks might simply complement today's workforce, it's just as easy to see self-driving trucks taking over altogether.
That might mean the rise of a new kind of trucker. Instead of spending all his time behind the wheel or at rest stops, the "driver" of the future might be a technician sitting at a desk somewhere, guiding several trucks at once.
"It's like how we're beginning to see new types of fighter pilots operating drones, deep in the desert," said Scott.
Does that mean current truckers will lose their jobs?
"Whether it's retraining or not, I don't know," said Scott. "This thing is not going to occur overnight. There may be time enough to bring people into the system that have never really driven a truck before."
(Disclosure: The founder and CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)