What’s the biggest concern in trucking? It’s the slowly decreasing supply of over-the-road drivers, at a time when freight is at an all-time high. E-commerce continues to increase, all the while requiring faster and faster delivery times due to industry disruptors like Amazon and Walmart.
Research from the American Trucking Association indicates that about 70% of goods shipped in the US are transported by truck, at a total of $700 billion in revenue. That’s about 80% of the US’s freight costs. There are about 4 million employed drivers in the US, (about 2 million driver large trucks over the road) with nearly 8 million people total working in the transportation industry.
The solution is simple: hire (and retain) more drivers. But despite the industry’s best efforts, drivers are not only aging out and retiring, but the incoming supply of new, younger drivers is far less than the industry needs to be sustainable.
The answer could be in the newest road warrior: The Self-Driving Truck.
Also known as autonomous trucks, these huge vehicles can do everything today’s trucks can do, and more. Currently tested at various facilities around the world, self-driving trucks could one day replace over-the-road truck drivers completely.
There are six levels of autonomy for any type of self-driving vehicle (including cars):
- Humans are required for control of all systems.
- Some systems, such as braking or cruise control, can be vehicle-controlled, but only one system at a time
- A human is still required for safe operation, but at least two systems can be simultaneously controlled by the vehicle, i.e., steering and acceleration.
- The vehicle can manage all safety-related functions under certain conditions, but requires a human to take over in the event of an alert.
- The vehicle is completely autonomous in most scenarios, but not all
- The vehicle is completely autonomous in all scenarios.
Currently, Level 5 trucks are only in the testing stages, while there are some Level 5 cars on the roads (like the Tesla.) But experts predict that Level 4 cars and trucks will be readily available in the next few years.
Labor is also one of the transportation industry’s biggest expenses, and the time limits on that labor can severely restrict time-sensitive shipments. Replacing some, or all, of the world’s drivers with trucks that can drive themselves would not only save on labor costs, but allow the trucks to drive longer distances in a 24 hour period.
Drivers in the US are limited to an 11-hour work day. This includes administrative paperwork, picking up and dropping off loads, and other work-related tasks. A self-driving truck is only limited by the tank of fuel it can take with it, and the occasional need for refueling.
Safety is another consideration. With most accidents caused by human error, self-driving trucks and cars are equipped with specific software and sensors and other equipment that can, at least in theory, reduce the number of driver-error crashes.
At the moment, the US infrastructure isn’t set up to handle the demands of a self-driving vehicle. Roads aren’t yet ready for these types of trucks (or cars, for that matter) and legislation hasn’t caught up with this new technology.
Should an accident occur with a self-driving truck, who is responsible? Laws will have to be examined to determine the answer.
“Last mile delivery” is a sector that can be greatly improved with the use of self-driving vehicles. When making a door-to-door delivery is too difficult for a large truck, smaller “drone” trucks can make those deliveries faster and more efficiently.
“Platooning” is a future-state benefit that hasn’t yet shown its touted benefits. The practice involves three to five autonomous trucks that drive together and follow a lead truck, which is Level 3 Autonomous (with a driver in each truck.) The “drag effect” expects to save a considerable amount on fuel, but Daimler’s testing hasn’t shown platooning to be as effective as expected. Trucks that disconnect from the line have to accelerate to resume, which will defeat the purpose. Next generation platooning may evolve into one driver in the lead truck.
The Union Of Concerned Scientists has additional information on the use and impact that self-driving trucks could have on transportation, both cars and trucks.
3PL Worldwide Helps With Transportation And Warehousing
Your freight is our business. How it gets from the factory to your customers is our business. You take care of what you do best. Ready to take your supply chain to the next level? Contact us at (888) 456-1920 or use our online contact form.