Some truck drivers concerned as Port of Virginia gets $2M grant to prepare for autonomous trucks

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PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — For years, autonomous trucks seemed like the stuff of science fiction. People weren’t ready to come to terms with a 40-ton vehicle rolling down the road with no one behind the wheel.

A grant from the Federal Highway Administration to the Virginia Port Authority steers the concept closer toward reality in Hampton Roads.

Truckers 10 On Your Side spoke with aren’t ready to get on board, but the head of the local truckers association says driverless trucks are still a long way down the road.

The Port Authority received one of 10 national grants from a pool of nearly $50 million in U.S. Department of Transportation funds for the development of innovative technology.

“This grant will help drive our initiative to establish the building blocks to make the Port of Virginia the first terminal in North America that is prepared to service the next generation of high-technology, over-the-road trucks,” said John F. Reinhart, CEO and executive director of the Virginia Port Authority.

“The extensive technology already integrated into our terminals uniquely qualifies us [Virginia] to take a leadership role that will shape the vision of how marine terminals will handle the exchange of containers between semi-automated terminal equipment and intelligent over-the-road vehicles. This industry is evolving and our goal to be at the forefront of change and innovation to help us deliver efficiency, customer service and sustainability,” he said.

Truckers who access the port are concerned about what lies ahead.

Jeremy Wilkins sees autonomous trucks as a threat to his livelihood.

“That would run us out of business,” he said.

Other truckers are not ready for robot rigs.

“I’m not against enhancing the port, and making it better,” said Ron Ford, originally from Norfolk. “But it seems like they’re trying to get rid of the drivers. It’s phasing out humans, so that’s my income, and I’m an owner-operator, so that would be terrible.”

“There’s been a lot of talk of these autonomous trucks,” said Ray Jalkio, president of the Tidewater Motor Trucks Association. “[The port] wants to be ready when these changes come. But it’s something that I believe is more of a long-term change.”

Muhammid Rashid hauls furniture into the Port from North Carolina — and he drives home an interesting perspective. He owns a Tesla which has an autonomous mode.

“When I’m with my family, with my kids, I’m not comfortable to use auto-drive,” he said, adding that he doesn’t feel it would be safe for big rigs, either.

UPS has run semi-autonomous trucks on routes in the Southwest, but with a human behind the wheel. A truly autonomous truck isn’t expected until the mid 2020s at the earliest.


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