Elon Musk has described them as the most significant technology on the horizon. However, unions are lobbying against their widespread use, citing studies that show they could eliminate up to 500,000 jobs.
They are self-driving trucks, which supporters see as a solution to rising shipping demand and increased road safety. If the technology improves enough, the logistics industry will be transformed, with trucks running nearly around the clock as they cross the country.
There are numerous companies racing to perfect automated trucking technology. Tesla revealed plans for its own autonomous truck called Semi last year, which will run on battery power and have a range of up to 500 miles. Meanwhile, Daimler, one of the largest trucking companies in the world, has announced a $573 million investment in self-driving trucks. Aurora, another major player in the space, has even developed its own autonomous truck operating system.
Experts tell Fortune that it will be years before drivers are completely absent from the wheel of 18-wheelers. The technology must still be improved so that it can operate reliably in extreme weather, and officials must rewrite regulations designed for human truck drivers.
Currently, the United States government has opened the door to autonomous trucking but only to a point. The US Department of Transportation announced a $100 million research plan for self-driving cars, including a $60 million grant for private companies. In March, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg stated that the government would not stand in the way of innovation and that autonomous vehicle policy would see “meaningful developments” this decade.
A significant increase in efficiency
Many shipping CEOs see automated trucking, particularly for long-distance trips, as a significant step toward greater efficiency. Human truck drivers are only allowed to work for eight hours before taking a break, and no more than 11 hours per day.
However, according to Wiley Deck, a former administrator in the United States Department of Transportation, drivers spend about six to six and a half hours per day physically driving a truck. Self-driving trucks would allow businesses to nearly triple that to 17 hours per day.
Deck is the vice president of government affairs and public policy at Plus, an autonomous driving startup that has raised nearly $700 million in venture capital since 2016. The company has already extensively tested its trucks across the United States and is now conducting trials in Europe and China, following a successful experimental run last year on two long-distance routes in China in which its vehicles drove over 60,000 miles without incident.
In the United States, automated trucks have already been tested on public roads.
However, the use of self-driving trucks is still limited to the Sun Belt states because the technology isn’t as good in bad weather, such as heavy snow and fog.
Certain parts of the country’s infrastructure will also need to catch up. Self-driving vehicles can communicate wirelessly with traffic signals, roadside assistance, and each other thanks to high-speed 5G internet connections. However, these networks are still lacking in many parts of the United States.
The labor market is changing
The most significant impact of automation may be on the labor market. Unions are concerned that automation will eliminate jobs and make trucking more risky.
However, experts believe that the reality is more complicated. Companies in the automated trucking industry insist that, contrary to popular belief, robots will not replace truck drivers.
He claims that recruiting new drivers has become increasingly difficult in recent years, particularly for long-haul truckers. Many people are turned off by the job’s high stress level, long hours away from home, and potential safety hazards.
The United States is experiencing a historic truck driver shortage. According to the American Trucking Associations, there will be 80,000 fewer drivers available in 2021 than would be ideal to meet demand.
While the number of qualified drivers and those interested in a career in long-haul trucking is low, the demand for long-haul shipping and distribution is growing.
The pandemic boosted online shopping significantly, increasing e-commerce sales by nearly $219 billion between 2020 and 2021. While the growth of internet shopping may slow slightly in 2022, some habits will be difficult to break, with one study projecting that e-commerce sales will increase from $5.5 trillion today to more than $7 trillion in 2025.
More e-commerce means more demand for long-haul trucks to transport those products across the country.
Due to technological limitations, human truck drivers will continue to play a role. For example, in cities and urban environments where software cannot currently navigate, people will still be required to drive.
This could lead to logistics industry hybridization, with some routes handled by automated long-haul trucks. Human drivers would be in charge of unloading the trucks or driving shorter routes in more urban areas.