The Tesla Autopilot crash raises another question: should cars and transport trucks be sharing the road?

trucks on highway
© ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP/Getty Images

There has been so much media coverage of the recent crash of a Tesla Model S on autopilot; we have looked at whether Tesla driver killed in autopilot crash might still be alive if trailers had side underride guards, at the number of people killed each year in underride collisions including the tragic deaths of Marianne Karth’s two daughters in a rear underride crash. But there are problems with underride protection devices; in our last post in this series I asked Underride guards might have saved the Tesla driver, but are they practical and realistic?

And as I wrote again that the designs of our cars and our transport trailers are fundamentally incompatible, I remembered something my father told me almost fifty years ago. He was a pioneer in the shipping container business, developing ways of getting shipping containers from trucks on to rail cars easily and quickly, believing that freight belonged on the rails, not on the roads, and that it would never be safe or efficient for transport trucks and cars to share the same highways.

And now that everyone is busy re-thinking the car, perhaps at the same time we should be rethinking the transport truck.

trucks vs trains© Norfolk Southern Railway

Seventy percent of freight in America is now moved by transport trucks, and it is hugely inefficient, using more than four times as much energy per ton-mile as rail transportation. Four thousand people a year are killed in crashes with trucks. Every single truck has a driver who is working long hours for lousy pay, often eating lousy food and leading to serious health problems, including obesity and chronic diseases.

miss blacktopWisconsin Historical society/Public Domain

However when the $329 Billion Dwight D. Eisenhower System of Interstate and Defense Highways opened, trucking became the quickest, cheapest and most efficient way to move goods point to point. When the great suburban experiment took off and businesses and retail centres were dispersed, trucks became the only way to service them economically. Soon the entire American economy changed and adapted to the new transportation reality. And the railways, which used to carry most of the freight, went into serious decline.

Steadman Industries side transfer unit© Steadman Industries

There were many people at the time who thought that freight still belonged on the rails and not on the roads, and tried to solve the problem of how you then get the goods to the new suburban distribution points, how you fight back against the transport truck. (That's my dad's system in the photo above.)

Fruehauf 1© Fruehauf

That’s in fact why Keith Tantlinger of Fruehauf invented the shipping container; it was originally designed to move from trailer to rail, separating the box of the trailer from the chassis, with all its axles, wheels, brakes and lights. (No, the shipping container was not invented by Malcom McLean. He was a Fruehauf customer and they built the boxes for him. He gets credit for putting them on ships instead of trains.)

Fruehauf train© Fruehauf

The idea made so much sense; instead of tying up expensive chassis and needing a driver for every box moving across the country, they would be moved from rail to truck to factory and back again. The railway would move the goods for long distances, while the trucks would be used for the short final distribution trips.

Fruehoff factory© Fruehauf

Unfortunately the Interstate Highway was public and paid for by the US government as part of a larger goal of decentralizing production (less chance of it all being taken out by a Russian nuke) and promoting suburban development. The privately owned railways couldn’t compete. Nobody actually planned this; it was just the natural response to the provision of cheap fast roads.

And we all have to live with the consequences sixty years later: Overcrowded roads, disintegrating infrastructure, and thousands of deaths every year, and a transportation system that makes no sense, mixing long-haul trucking with families in cars, all so that truckloads of stuff can get to the suburban big-box store a little more quickly.

Highway vision© WSP|Parsons Brickerhoff, Farrells

Now, when we are re-thinking the transportation systems of our cities and suburbs to adapt to the self-driving car, is the time we should be re-thinking the way we move goods. Because whether they are autonomous or not, as my dad said 50 years ago, it will never be safe or efficient for transport trucks and cars to share the same highways.

The shipping container revolutionized transportation of goods around the world; perhaps we need a revolution in transportation of goods around the country. Maybe rail, maybe Hyperloop, who knows, but now that people are rethinking the transportation systems of our cities and suburbs to adapt to the self-driving car, it's time to think about the way we move our stuff.

Tags: Self-driving car | Shipping Containers | Transportation

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