For years, the idea of an impending innovation that will completely transform the trucking industry has been circulating: the widescale adoption of autonomous trucks.
This dramatic change is not quite “just around the corner,” but it’s well on the way. When it arrives, change will be inevitable and is typical when any new technology is adopted. Those that embrace change early and manage the process will likely find success with new technologies.
The business case for autonomous trucks is especially strong for fleet operators, who are understandably concerned about how self-driving technology will affect business models and improve their efficiencies. Autonomous trucks will clearly impact their operations, but with some forethought and sensible planning, fleet operators can reap the benefits of this game-changing innovation.
Collaboration is key to making this a seamless evolution for everyone. Autonomous vehicle technology can be a catalyst for sustained innovation in the freight industry, but only if approached as such. Disruption to trucking fleets equals disruption to our supply chain and our marketplaces because trucking is truly the backbone of the U.S. economy.
Autonomous trucks have the potential to be a net positive for everyone: business owners, consumers, the environment, and yes — even to our national fleet of drivers.
A Welcome Change
To some, the idea of self-driving trucks immediately conjures ideas of autonomous vehicles displacing hard-working truckers, leading to long lines at the unemployment office. That simply will not happen. Even after it’s perfected, the adoption of autonomous technology by the trucking industry will be a slow process over many years. If someone is a truck driver today, he or she will be able to retire as a truck driver.
That said, it’s clear that change is inevitable — and necessary. Today, supply chain complications are creating global issues and causing some factories to literally shut down because of a lack of parts. Shipping ports are jammed. A labor shortage in general means that trucks spend endless hours idling and waiting for shipments to be loaded onto trucks. This is compounded by the shortage of truckers which the American Trucking Associations estimates to be currently in the 70,000 range and ballooning to 160,000 by 2028.
Autonomous trucks will help solve that problem. Today’s drivers are limited to 11 hours per day, while self-driving trucks have the capability to operate almost 24 hours per day, given time for preparation and refueling. This consistent operation and greater amount of uptime will help “unstick” the supply chain by increasing asset utilization across operations.
This technology has the potential to make our roadways safer by performing like the best, most experienced drivers on the road. There are 415,000 truck crashes a year in the U.S. alone and 4,050 of these are fatal. Some 87,000 truck drivers are injured annually in accidents and many are career ending. Self-driving trucks, with their high-fidelity sensing power and ability to continue performing without risk of distraction, should help reduce these accidents.
Balancing Sustained innovation and Change
What will this new modality of transport look like in the real world? If done correctly, it should be a balance of necessary change and sustained innovation.
Truck drivers not only drive trucks, but they also act as a safety critical actor in the event of system failures, overseeing the vehicle system, and communication with fleet companies. One of the main changes we will see in the trucks themselves is the ability to perform some of these tasks.
Trucks performing without human intervention will need to be able to determine when a load is unbalanced or a tire blows, or recognize and handle unexpected situations on the road. Autonomous trucks need to be built from the ground up with redundant critical systems that can take over if power brakes or steering fail.
In the event of a system failure or unexpected event, autonomous trucks will be built to complete the mission and call for help if needed. An established autonomous trucking company should have a global network of service and support for roadside assistance missions, as well as a solid infrastructure that ensures reliable trucks, a dependable maintenance system, and vehicles that integrate well with existing business models.
In some ways, the advent of autonomous vehicle technology won’t drastically alter the day-to-day work of fleet operations. For instance, supporting roles such as dispatch may simply evolve to include integrations for self-driving truck monitoring into existing Transportation Management Systems.
However, some elements of the trucking world would need to adapt. Terminals may need to be reconfigured to efficiently mix or separate manually driven and self-driven trucks, and parking lots may need to be redesigned for self-driving truck accessibility.
CDL drivers themselves will see a transformation, but it won’t be black and white. Instead, like many other industries seeing technological growth, the jobs will grow and adapt within the industry.
Start Dialogues Sooner, Not Later
Autonomous technology should be set up in a way to compliment the freight industry, not disrupt it entirely. That’s why it’s critical for fleet owners to start a dialogue within their businesses and with autonomous vehicle technology providers now. This way, they can modify their infrastructure while also ensuring employees are aware of the impending changes and can adjust for future job profiles. Indeed, fleet owners can communicate with their teams the ways that autonomous trucks are integrating with freight networks as a whole, so it won’t herald the end of truckers’ employment prospects — far from it.
When new technologies are introduced, jobs don’t disappear — they change. Contrary to initial fears, the move toward automation has created more new industries and jobs, the World Bank’s 2019 World Development Report found.
The trucking industry trajectory could look more like the growth of aviation, which has led to an increase in technical compliance, security, maintenance, and many other industries. Within trucking, new jobs could be created in areas like logistics or hub services. And jobs will be created in new adjacent fields, similar to how the smart phone triggered a whole new industry in apps, or in support industries, including the sensor industry (which is growing due to the advent of autonomous vehicles).
When will autonomous trucks be available at scale? I believe it will be when the technology is ready and safe, as well as when fleet companies truly see the benefit in both total cost of ownership and asset utilization. This is why it is so important to work together toward this solution. This is a complex problem to solve, and autonomous trucking companies are starting to realize this and incorporate it into their timelines. Others believe that although timing is most important, commercializing when the product is safe is more important.
Here’s what’s important to remember: Autonomous semi-trucks are coming and they will provide numerous social and business benefits. What’s just as important is that self-driving vehicles are safe, reliable, and will create jobs and bolster the economy.
That’s a future we can all embrace.