The auto industry promises a future where buses, cars and trucks are essentially mobile robots. With just a few taps on your smartphone, you can key in commands for your vehicle to take you anywhere. Autonomous trucks are at the forefront of taking a leap into the future. Self-driving within the trucking industry has been making considerably more progress, and its impact on the ferrying of goods will undoubtedly be profound.
In October 2016, the first autonomous truck in America hit the road on a 120-mile journey. The drive from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs was safe and effective even as the truck navigated through highways and rocky terrain. While there are more than a few apprehensions around autonomous tracking and its technological, political, and economic implications, the trucking industry’s future is, without debate, bright.
Understanding the Potential Implications of Autonomous Trucking
Even as excitement about self-driving and autonomous trucking grows, America can simply not ignore the white elephant in the room. The big question is; will autonomous driving affect the jobs of truck drivers?
Currently, America has over 3.5 million professional truck drivers. This is according to the ATA (American Trucking Association). Additionally, there are over 8.7 million people who work within the freight and trucking industry. These numbers are even higher when considering people in other sectors whose livelihoods depend on the transportation industry. This includes gas station workers, rest stop workers and hotel managers.
Arguably, America’s economy rides on the back of the freight industry. It is the strongest it has ever been, and trucking trends reported in 2016 showed that the overall trucking gross is over $725 billion. If autonomous trucking was implemented industry-wide, this could create a devastating disruption in the livelihoods of millions of Americans.
Autonomous technology in the freight industry can indeed save billions of dollars annually. If the whole industry shifted to self-driving, it could save over 168 billion each year. Unfortunately, this would upset the economy in a shattering manner. On the bright side, those in the trucking industry would enjoy lucrative returns and thanks to reduced expenses and increased net revenue.
One of the most alluring perks of autonomous driving is reduced labor costs. Self-driving could reduce the cost of labor by a whopping $70 billion annually. Unfortunately, this $70 billion will be money snatched from the hands of truck drivers and their dependents on the downside. Such major economic shifts are guaranteed to draw politics deep into the transportation industry.
How Big Is The Trucking Industry?
Globally speaking, the size of the logistics industry ranges between $8 trillion and $12 trillion annually. These forecasts use a percentage of gross domestic products (GDP). Research shows that the logistics market is about 12% of the world’s GDP. Thanks to the unquenchable supply chains of different products, the logistics industry is ever growing.
In 2018, the global logistics market was at $9.8 trillion annually. This is according to research conducted by Armstrong & Associates Inc. Trucking accounted for roughly 43% of the overall global logistics costs, with only one-third of the expense representing non-trucking modes like storage and transportation by air, rail or maritime.
According to Statista, business logistics costs in the U.S. in 2018 were over $1.6 trillion. Only two thirds of the expense accounted for the actual transportation cost.
By far, the trucking market dominates the transportation industry in the U.S. This market has an estimated value of $800 billion thanks to the upsurge of parcel transportation and e-commerce.
The Prospects of Autonomous Trucking
The perks of autonomous trucking are evident. However, only time will tell if the use of technology and self-driving in specific will impact the economy. There are three “autonomous trucking prospects” to be expected. They include:
Self-driving trucks will hit our roads way before self-driving cars. This is because businesses are less resistant to change when compared to the average citizen.
Trucking automation is bound to be cheaper because of increased fuel efficiency, fewer accidents, higher productivity and reduced labor costs.
Autonomous trucking will boost the safety of our roads thanks to the advanced technology used.
Self-driving trucks will replace “some” professional drivers. Technology changes rapidly in just about all industries and the trucking market is not an exception. Notions about self-driving wiping out all drivers should be taken with a grain of salt.
Not-So-Autonomous; Levels of Automated Trucks
Automatic trucking technology has greatly advanced since its inception. Many questions remain about how the self-driving trucks work, when they will be adopted and how trucking companies can incorporate such trucks into their fleets.
There are five levels of automated trucks that range from drive-enabled models to fully automatic varieties.
Level 1 Truck — Driver Assistance Required
A good number of cars and trucks are equipped with level 1 self-driving technology. They feature automated steering, lane departure warnings and cruise control among other automatic features.
Level 2 Trucks — Some Automation
The level 2 autonomous trucks have their acceleration and steering regulated for enhanced safety. However, the driver remains in total control of the car.
Level 3 Trucks — Conditional Automation
These trucks are automated, although they require a driver to be on board. The car can make a range of computerized decisions, such as choosing when to brake or overtake slow-moving vehicles.
Level 4 Trucks – High Automation
Level 4 trucks don’t always need a human override, especially when driving under the best environmental conditions. A driver may be required when navigating challenging terrain such as rocky paths.
Level 5 Trucks – Fully Automated
These are by far the most advanced self-driving trucks. They can navigate safely and effectively on any terrain, under any conditions without a human override.
According to the American Trucking Association, the industry’s focus is currently on level 4 trucks. While the trucks don’t require human override in certain conditions, companies will likely retain some drivers for safety purposes. It is best to know that these trucks may not have driver controls such as a steering wheel or pedals.
What is clear is that the trucks being tested at the moment are not fully autonomous. While they are designed to promote self-driving, some level of human override is required. Even with significant technological advancements, the safety and versatility of fully automated trucks (level 5) are still uncertain. Besides, there is more to moving from one point to another than merely avoiding accidents on highways.
In short, what the “autonomous” trucks promise is autopilot, where there must be a driver nearby to take control during various situations. For instance, a human override may be necessary when maneuvering through major hubs that tend to be busy and packed with hundreds of other trucks.
The wave of tech expected in the near future is not so autonomous. It is, however, highly advanced and offers a range of safety systems and cruise controls.
Autonomous Trucks: The Good & the Bad
Self-driving trucks pretty much resemble the typical 18-wheelers. Even though some models don’t have driver controls like pedals and steering wheels, most of them have these features and even have a seat for the driver. At the moment, 18 states have already permitted testing of these trucks without a human override.
In some areas, these automated trucks are even allowed to pull off at exit ramps and even park themselves. However, some human intervention may be necessary when making turns and navigating traffic lights. While most automated models currently available are only ideal for freeway and highway driving, engineers have more models on trial runs that can navigate city traffic and comprehend traffic signals.
Automated Trucks; The Good
Autonomous trucking promises more productivity. More freight can safely move across the country, and drivers will have less downtime. According to public opinion, drivers may lose their jobs once these trucks dominate the roads—but is this true?
From a realistic perspective, the country has a significant shortage of professional drivers. This means that self-driving trucking will only provide a solution to an already existing problem.
Think of self-driving technology as an assistant. Some truck drivers are known to be on the road for as long as a month at a time. With autonomous trucking, most of them will keep their jobs and still have a good night sleep in their beds each night. The new technology will merely make the industry better.
Automatic trucks will solve the problem of driver shortage and, at the same time, increase the overall workforce within the freight industry. The market will require new workers for the development, testing and deployment of the new self-driving trucks. Additionally, the industry will need technicians trained to maintain trucks and the automated models in specific.
It’s hard to talk about autonomous trucking without mentioning the benefit of enhanced safety. Unlike humans, who are inherently predisposed to making blunders from time to time, computers often make the right, pre-set decisions and never get tired. We can also expect self-driving trucks to offer better fuel economy.
Automatic Trucks; The Bad
Autonomous trucks can remedy the shortage of professional drivers in the country. They can also enhance safety, although the path to their adoption has more than its fair share of hurdles.
First, these trucks are highly advanced, meaning that drivers may need to enroll for specialized training. The new technology comes with a learning curve, and those in the freight industry, including fleet operators, vehicle inspectors and service technicians, require different training. Moreover, autonomous trucks have a unique set of recommended maintenance practices.
There is much evolution that must take place. This includes how the trucks are fueled, loaded and unloaded. Through social acceptance of self-driving technology and consumers ready to conform to how the new industry works, we can make autonomous driving a complete success.
When to Expect Widespread Adoption of Autonomous Trucking in the United States
The ultimate success of autonomous trucking will highly depend on the level of social acceptance of this new technology. A recent survey by Pew Research showed that about 11% of Americans are very excited about the new technology. About 54% of Americans are still apprehensive about the full implementation of driverless trucks.
According to TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, we can expect level 5 truck demonstrations this year (2021). By 2024, freight deliveries by driverless trucks are to be expected. By this time, the industry will have streamlined everything, ensuring the possibility of immediate adoption of self-driving trucks.
Autonomous trucking technology is on the horizon, and this is a truth we cannot ignore. The best thing that trucking firms can do is work with OEMs and begin learning what to expect once these trucks are adopted.
There are associations you can join and conferences that are held now and then to educate those within the freight industry. You can also search for news about autonomous trucks and generally know where your company fits in once the new technology is ready for adoption.
Even though level 5 trucking technology is yet to be validated on street traffic, these fully automatic trucks are ready for highway application in fair weather conditions. Engineers are still busy at work to ensure these trucks can ride through more challenging conditions and inclement weather.
As for level 4 trucks, the question is not if, but when will they hit U.S. highways.
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