Autonomous Trucks Could Be a Win for Both Man and Machine

By Ari Smith posted 03-13-2018 03:43 PM

  
​Autonomous trucking is gaining speed as logistics managers realize it could address several of today’s shipping woes. Industry analysts expect company leaders to invest $1 billion in self-driving and other trucking technologies this year alone. What might these changes look like, and how could shippers improve efficiency ?

Autonomous trucking may seem like a huge leap forward in technology, but the first self-driving truck hit the road nearly three years ago. Even that very first version, which the safety driver only put into self-driving mode on the highway, shed light on a solution that could address many of today’s transportation industry hurdles. From driver shortages to electronic logging device (ELD) compliance and increasing e-Commerce volumes, self-driving trucks could become a revolutionary logistics technology quicker than you might think.

Shortages need solutions

As 2018 kicks into gear, those in the trucking industry face a shortage of nearly a million drivers, and the number of younger drivers entering the workforce continues to slow to a trickle. Drivers tend to face static problems associated with their positions such as erratic and long work hours, extended time away from their families, as well as sleep apnea. Thus, raising wages to attract new drivers may not be enough to close the gap. Investing in a self-driving fleet represents a potential long-term solution for delivering the 11 out of every 12 loads lacking drivers to carry them.

Even in the short term, autonomous trucks could allow for less experienced drivers to operate routes safer and well-within outlined ELD mandate parameters since drivers can rest while trucks do the bulk of highway driving. Each advance in automated trucking also presents an opportunity to conquer ever-present human error issues, whether it be increasing the amount of time a truck can be on the road between routes, minimizing late deliveries, or using automation to streamline processes in the quest for perfect deliveries.

Investments are picking up

Today’s autonomous trucks have already come a long way in just three short years, and savvy logistics professionals are paying attention. In fact, industry analysts expect company leaders to invest more than $1 billion in self-driving and other trucking technologies this year — 10 times the amount investors were spending when that first truck hit the road in 2015.

Leaders of big-name companies like Tesla and Waymo, sister company to Google, are continuing to reveal the building blocks of their completely autonomous vehicles.This is yet another way autonomous trucking is treading a unique technological path: Trucking company decision-makers can add components to vehicles bit by bit as they perfect and prove their semi trucks safe rather than making single giant investments in brand-new robotic fleets years down the road. Using this method, they can begin taking advantage of autonomous braking, collision avoidance, and lane steering. Even these periodic minor changes can offer short-term cost savings in safety and accident expenses, the bulk of which result from human error. Rather than autonomous trucking being an eventuality logistics insiders must deal with in time, it represents concrete returns on today’s investments. In fact, many expect tech leaders will largely perfect autonomous trucking in the next five to 10 years.

Driver-truck partnership

Naturally, not everyone looks at these advances favorably. Some worry self-driving trucks will put 1.7 million U.S. drivers out of jobs. However, according to the New York Times article, leaders of companies like the Embark startup have been executing dry runs with partners who focus on leaving automated trucking to certain over-the-road (OTR) routes. This will allow existing drivers to continue working with trucks locally, spending regular shift work hours bringing a larger number of trailers in from highway exit drop-off points. With this type of driver-truck partnership, trucking company leaders can increase efficiency and lower costs while drivers shift to positions that keep them on more regular work schedules — and closer to their families. These drivers can also handle more freight in that time, helping their companies to meet higher shipping volumes and faster delivery demands.

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