The trucking industry is currently in a technology transition that includes autonomous vehicles. First, we saw the smartphone apps that helped truckers locate truck stops and trucker parking. Then came the FAST Act in 2015 that will require all commercial truck drivers to use electronic logging systems by December 18, 2017. There is also truck tracking technology and in-cab dash cam systems that are used to reduce crime and improve safety.
Today, we are seeing a fast-paced move toward autonomous vehicles in the trucking industry. Using self-driving technology, truck drivers will soon be able to eat, watch TV—even nap—while their big rig drives itself. Long-term, there may not even be a driver in the vehicle. Will this new trucking technology continue to make the trucking industry and America’s highways safer and more efficient? What will this look like for those in the industry?
Current State of Trucking Industry
Before we answer that question, why are self-driving trucks even a consideration? The main purpose of autonomous trucks is to make truck driving a safer profession. This is both for the driver and the general public. Being a truck driver is hard work. Truckers drive in all types of weather and traffic conditions. They are regulated by hours of service rules that dictate when they can drive, eat, sleep, and rest.
Plus, the trucking industry is currently running at max capacity, as qualified truckers are either retiring or leaving the industry for better paying, less stressful jobs. There is also the issue of a constantly increasing demand for freight hauling services. There are currently 3.5 million truck drivers in the U.S. But according to the American Trucking Association’s Truck Driver Shortage Analysis from 2015, the industry was short nearly 48,000 drivers in 2015. By 2024 the trucking industry will see a shortage of 175,000 truck drivers.
Autonomous trucking technology offers a two-part solution. First, self-driving trucks can make the trucker’s life a lot less stressful, which could improve the job outlook for future drivers. Secondly, autonomous trucks offer more safety for truck drivers, and this could help attract individuals to the job market. However, autonomous trucking offers greater potential beyond an improved quality of life for truck drivers.
One of the biggest expenses of any trucking company, no matter if they own one truck or 1000, is fuel. Diesel eats up nearly 40 percent of a trucking company’s total expenses, and 18-wheelers do not get the best fuel economy at 4 to 8 mpg. This is where self-driving tech can help out, by reducing revving and idling and by cutting down on poor routing.
And back to that safety feature. Autonomous-technology big rigs are predicted to be safer, which means less of an expense for truck driving insurance. Trucking insurance premiums are greatly increased in the case of accidents, and many insurers will refuse to cover an accident-prone driver, period. By using autonomous technology, trucking insurance costs will be reduced as overall safety increases.
Self-Driving Semi Trucks
One important point to note before we talk about self-driving trucks is the degree of autonomy of these vehicles. The self-driving trucks currently in production and being test driven are semi-autonomous. That means these trucks will still require a human driver to sit behind the wheel. They are not totally autonomous to the point where a trucker has no control either. This type of autonomous vehicle is referred to as a level 4, as the driver would receive sufficient advance notification if they need to take over the wheel when in autonomous mode.
The way these trucks function is that the trucks are only able to go into the self-drive mode in the right driving conditions. Straight roads, clear skies, and light traffic—those are the variables a self-driving semi requires. So while autonomous trucks do have a future in trucking, these trucks are not robots that are replacing truck drivers. Instead, the goal with this technology is to make trucking safer by decreasing the negative effects of fatigue and stress that truckers currently endure. Autonomous trucks are all about improving the trucking industry and making America’s highways safer for everyone on them.
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Self-driving trucks are already on the roadways, albeit in test run scenarios. Starsky is using autonomous trucks to haul local freight within a 120-mile stretch in California. Otto is another major player in the autonomous truck production world. Also based in California, in the San Francisco locale, Otto already has autonomous technology installed in Volvo semis. This tech involves sensors and processors along with video cameras and radars to help improve safe driving for truckers.
In addition to using Otto’s sensing tech, Volvo Trucks is also working on its own proprietary self-driving system. The same goes for Peterbilt and Daimler Trucks, which makes up a sizable market of semis. Speaking of Daimler Trucks, the company’s Freightliner Inspiration Truck released in 2015 is actually the first official self-driving semi truck in the US. The company began running road tests throughout Nevada, including a self-driving run across the Hoover Dam, all without incident.
The Future of Autonomous Trucking
According to Starsky CEO Stefan Seltz-Axmache, the future of autonomous trucking will involve truck drivers steering their semis using remote controls. Furthermore in Technology Review, “Otto insists it has no plans to release products intended to operate trucks without a driver in the cab.” The main focus is to give truck drivers more leeway to work on routing, relaxing, or resting.
We can’t expect to see autonomous technology completely replacing the role of the driver. There are simply too many moving parts in logistics and trucking for that to happen. It’s clear, though, that the industry will continue to embrace and utilize technology to improve fleet management, dispatching, safety and more.
If you can remember back to when self-checkout lanes first arrived in grocery stores, everyone thought robots would take over those jobs, too. As it turns out, we like people and human connections in business dealings, and 3.5 million jobs and counting would be too many jobs to take away from Americans. Autonomous trucking will offer a solution for trucker safety, but it will not offer a replacement for truck drivers.
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