Self-Driving Trucks: How Close, How Fast – 9/2/16

The arrival of self-driving trucks will be a major source of cost-savings for companies and consumers as well as a major source of anxiety for the drivers the technology is intended to replace.

The stakes are undoubtedly high as the American Trucking Association reported that the trucking industry brought in revenues of over $700 billion in 2014, but what exactly would the change entail and how close are we to seeing computerized truck drivers displace human ones?

Well, on one hand you have cheaper shipping, safer roads, and more fuel efficient driving practices as autonomous trucks operate for longer hours without the incentive to drive as quickly or recklessly. Today, labor represents around 75% of the cost of shipping a full truckload from L.A. to New York. Reducing the cost of labor would mean savings for shippers who would then pass on some of those savings to consumers. In addition, computer systems don’t need to rest at night so they can drive at slower, more fuel efficient speeds while reaching their destinations faster.

On the other hand, you have the loss of one of America’s most common jobs. The trucker and many others would see direct harm to their livelihood and they would no longer help sustain countless motels, restaurants, and other support industries. Cheaper goods and shipping don’t really match up to a stable, well-paying job.

It would be a difficult choice to make from a compassionate standpoint, but businesses usually don’t stay compassionate long after costs of a disruptive technology fall and they need it to stay competitive. Thus, many are testing the technology. In the mining sector, Rio Tinto is already using them in its Australia operations, and Volvo will soon begin testing its own self-driving truck at a mine in Sweden. Outside mining, Uber has acquired Otto, a startup working on retrofitting trucks to add autonomous capabilities, in its own attempt to break into the trucking industry presumably leveraging its existing work with self-driving cars.

Trucks are a prime target for automation because they offer significant cost savings from greater efficiency and labor cost reduction. Yet, for now, technology and regulations often require a driver and a humans are still better navigators on smaller, trickier roads in urban areas. Driving on highways is easier to automate since speeds are consistent, pedestrians are absent, and there are fewer corners to create blind spots. Though the transition to fully-autonomous fleets will not happen over night, there are some features to automate driving on highways would allow vehicles to travel for longer hours, consume less fuel, and operate more safely while keeping a human in the driver’s seat. Otto, now owned by Uber, will sell its kit by around 2020 at a cost of $30,000 and even that needs a human in the cab.

The truly large cost savings will come when drivers are replaced completely; however, the day that computers take the wheel without direct supervision is still many years away.

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