Ike, an autonomous trucking start-up company, just finished a Series A round of $52 million. Investors are working to create self-driving trucks. Companies such as Amazon and Embark are also working with autonomous deliveries. Embark is using autonomous technology in its trucks while Amazon is testing “Scout,” a robot delivery service. While this may save companies hundreds of thousands of dollars each year, it may also mean that truck drivers will be hard-pressed to find work—or does it?
The Truck Driver Shortage
For several years, the trucking industry has been short of drivers. According to a FreightWaves article, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) stated that there could be a shortage of 175,000 truck drivers by 2026 “if things don’t change.” Bob Costello, a senior vice president at ATA, ran through some numbers to show how he made that estimate. In 2017, he estimated that the trucking industry was short 50,000 over-the-road truck drivers. He cited part of the problem as efficiency.
As of the first quarter of 2019, efficiency problems include dead head hours, the number of hours spent at a dock and the fact that truckers are only allowed to drive 11 hours per day.
While autonomous trucks may be a while in the making, some of that technology is already in place. According to Truckinginfo.com, eight safety technologies were in use or being tested as of 2016, including rearview cameras, anti-lock braking system, lane departure warning, stability control, blind spot warning systems, collision avoidance systems, side monitoring sensors and cameras, and interior cameras. The cost of these technologies is minuscule when compared to the cost of a fatal accident. For example, in 2016, the cost of a lane departure warning system was about $800. The cost of a fatal accident could be as high as $1.3 million.
The technology is already in place for autonomous vehicles, though it has a ways to go to be perfected. Tesla has been testing autonomous cars for some time now. Cars and light trucks have had technology such as adaptive cruise control and forward collision mitigation for several years.
The Problem with Autonomous Trucks
Those who are just entering the trucking industry may have reservations about doing so because of the upcoming technology. However, no matter how well autonomous trucking is presented, the industry will always need drivers. An autonomous truck can only do so much before a driver has to take over. Additionally, there are many instances where having a driver is imperative, and that includes driving in dangerous areas such as Canada’s ice road trucking routes and even over mountains.
Before drivers traverse an ice crossing, for example, the driver gets out to check the ice. Many of the ice crossings are not maintained once they are created. On crossings that are not maintained, it is up to the driver to determine if the ice is safe to drive across. Drivers who frequently drive through the mountains also rely on their experience to make it through safely. Often, a pass will get snowed in unexpectedly. Only a driver can assess the conditions prior to continuing through the area.
If an autonomous truck relies on weather reports to make it through a pass, it could become stranded if an unexpected storm crops up and closes the pass before the weather conditions are transmitted to an autonomous truck’s system.
Additional problems include maneuvering in tight spaces in crowded cities and the amount of time a truck sits at a dock waiting to get unloaded. In many cases, the two-hour wait time is extended to over three hours because the destination warehouse doesn’t have the personnel at the site when the driver arrives.
The Benefits of Autonomous Trucking
Autonomous trucking may be a benefit to the trucking industry. As of now, truckers are only allowed to drive 11 hours per day. This ends up costing trucking companies billions and requiring more truckers. Instead of looking at autonomous trucking to be the end of the industry, look at it as a benefit. With this technology, trucks could run 20 hours per day instead of 11. Drivers could switch out at set stops along a route to keep the truck running. It is estimated that combining autonomous trucking with drivers could save $24 billion on over-the-road trips, according to the McKinsey report cited in FreightWaves.
This could keep drivers closer to home while still allowing companies to travel longer routes. It would also make driving safer since the driver and the truck’s technology, including forward collision mitigation, would be working to prevent accidents.
Additionally, the electronic log devices that are now required were supposed to decrease the number of accidents that truckers are involved in. However, this technology seems to have backfired, according to Truckinginfo.com. While the hours of service violations decreased, it has been found that drivers are now speeding because of the tight rein on hours of service, and that has increased the number of accidents.
Adding autonomous trucking technology would keep the drivers from violating hours of service while encouraging drivers to stay within the speed limit since the trucks could be on the road for more than 11 hours. Deadlines would be able to be met. With this in place, trucking companies may find it easier to predict when their drivers will be at a destination and will be able to better schedule return loads to eliminate dead heading. This will also encourage drivers to stay within the speed limits and obey other traffic regulations since they will be paid for the return trip.
Additionally, when drivers will be switching out to meet the hours of service regulations, trucks could still be on the go. A truck could go from one destination to another several times before returning to base instead of coming back to base, so a driver is able to make it home for a day or two.