Self-driving cars are already on public roads in some U.S. states, if only for testing. Some of the world’s largest companies including Uber and Google are heavily investing in autonomous vehicles as they race to be the first to figure out this technology. The idea that we will someday ride in passenger cars that drive themselves is becoming a reality. The only question is when?
But fully autonomous cars may not be the first passenger vehicles to move from human drivers to autonomy. Experts say that autonomous trucking is a far more likely target.
Long-haul trucking is an expensive and dangerous profession. Drivers often push themselves to cover as many miles a day as they can, which can lead to crashes — and consequently, heavy labor regulations. Fuel costs continually rise. But as shipping volumes grow, carriers have need more trucks and long-haul truckers, leading to an acute labor shortage.
Autonomous trucking could change all of that. They don’t get tired, so they only have to stop for gas. They don’t collect wages. That will make shipping significantly cheaper and more efficient for carriers—even though it eliminates hundreds of thousands of trucking jobs for human truck drivers.
Self-driving trucks don’t truly drive themselves. Think of them like airplanes: they effectively steer, accelerate and decelerate and navigate, but they still need pilots to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Emergency buttons allow those human drivers to take over the steering wheel and the driver’s seat at any time. But ensuring that a autonomous truck drives itself is much less intense work than driving itself, so fewer drivers can work longer shifts more safely.
It’s an enormous change that will have complex impacts. Here’s what we expect—and what we’ll have to find out as we go.
Advancements in Autonomous Technology in The Trucking Industry
Self-driving car technology is a crowded, competitive field. Google parent company, Alphabet owns Waymo, which is actively working toward a self-driving car project. Uber recently acquired a start-up called Otto, and has tested self-driving cars on public roads and the highway. Tesla too has tested autonomous cars on the road. Its long-term goal is to increase efficiency by creating autonomous trucks that “platoon.” Truck platooning technology allows a whole line of trucks follow a single driver in the lead vehicle.
Working specifically on trucks is Daimler, the owner of Mercedes-Benz and Freightliner Trucks, which has been testing driverless trucks since 2014. Founded in 2016 in San Francisco, Embark is working to allow truck drivers to spend less time actually driving, which will allow them to deliver more each day.
Chinese company, TuSimple is developing self-driving commercial trucks in Tucson. It plans to hire 500 people in the U.S., including at its San Diego headquarters over the next two years.
How Autonomous Driving Would Make Shipping More Efficient
In Tesla’s model, self-driving trucks can closely trail one another in a convoy. The first car is the lead, which needs a human driver to monitor the autopilot system, but the trucks following behind can be empty. This truck platooning technology would make the logistics industry and transportation incredibly effective.
First, this dramatically reduces labor costs. If a convoy of five trucks only needs one person piloting it, that only costs 20 percent of the cost of five drivers in five trucks.
Second, driverless trucks can cover more distance in less time. They can maintain steady speeds without taking breaks except to refuel. They can re-route around construction and closed roads without stopping to check maps. That eliminates much of the uncertainty around delivery times and helps carriers know exactly when packages will arrive.
Alongside trucks, several major carriers (including Amazon) are testing drone delivery in urban areas. Drones meet a very different need than trucks do. Trucks travel hundreds of miles a day, moving from warehouse to warehouse, while drones are far more valuable in dense urban settings that trucks struggle to reach.
Those dense urban settings can be hugely inefficient for carriers. Individuals have to park their trucks, walk packages to doors and sometimes negotiate with locked doors and security staff. But drones can drop package after package at doorsteps without getting tired or worrying about parking.
How Self-Driving Vehicles Will Affect Shippers and Supply Chain
As carriers move toward autonomous vehicles, they promote decreased costs and increased profits for shareholders. But they’re also facing pushback from employees.
UPS, whose workforce is unionized, recently signed a new collective bargaining agreement with its employees. The company has to give workers six months’ notice before implementing technology that could eliminate jobs including autonomous technology.
UPS has tested drone delivery. FedEx is exploring driverless delivery trucks in small neighborhoods, and partnered with Peleoton Technology on a semi-autonomous platoon system. Fully automated trucks are in the company’s long-term plans.
Amazon is exploring both avenues. The company has a team working on self-driving trucks, and has already named its drone program Amazon Prime Air, which is in trials in the United Kingdom.
The industry will continue to evolve faster as these new technologies advance, first to on-the-road testing and eventually to implementation. Reveel will be here to help you keep up.