The Reality of Autonomous Trucks

by | Feb 3, 2017

Autonomous truck technology is accelerating quickly, and self-driving large trucks could be rolling down the roadways of America much sooner than expected. In fact, a self-driving truck operated by Uber subsidiary Otto recently completed the successful delivery of about 51,744 cans of beer from Fort Collins, Colorado to Colorado Springs — a total distance of around 120 miles — without a human driver behind the wheel. A driver was in the cab during the trip, however.

Fast Lane to the Facts Surrounding Autonomous Trucks

While advocates claim that these futuristic trucks will offer an abundance of benefits including being much safer and less expensive in the long run, many remain skeptical. A careful evaluation of the reality of automated trucking technology will help separate the facts from the myths.

Myth #1: Robots Will Mean Unemployment for Millions of Truckers

One major concern for truckers nationwide is that autonomous truck technology will cost them their jobs in the near future. This simply isn’t so. According to the American Trucking Associations, it is predicted that by 2024 the current truck driver shortage will increase from around 48,000 truck driver jobs available to about 175,000 available positions. A persistent driver shortage is expected in the decades after that.

Although the new technology may eliminate the need for many truckers and help relieve the driver shortage, the L3 and L4 automated trucks that will be on the roads in the near future will still require a driver to be on board while in operation. The use of autonomous trucks will simply eliminate the need for lengthy rest stops, thereby making the most of the trucker’s time away from home.

Myth #2: Autonomous Trucks Are Unsafe

Autonomous trucks will be equipped with extremely advanced technology that is actually expected to improve safety on America’s highways. 3,903 individuals lost their lives to large truck accidents in 2014. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), about 94 percent of vehicle crashes can be attributed to a driver. The equipment on self-driving trucks includes GPS, high-powered sensors, laser illuminating detection and ranging (LIDAR), cameras, radar, and advanced software that enables the “robot driver” to make decisions while in operation. Additionally, since truckers will be able to engage the automated system when needed during acceptable conditions, they can handle many of their day-to-day tasks while the truck is still moving. This will significantly reduce the number of crashes caused by distracted driving or driving while fatigued.

Myth #3: Autonomous Truck Technology Will Be More Costly

Although the cost for automated technology will be a significant investment initially, it will pay for itself in the long haul. It is estimated that the technology will cost approximately $15,000 to $20,000 per truck when first installed. Currently, about one-third of the $700 billion-per-year trucking industry’s costs goes toward compensating truck drivers. Since fewer drivers will be required, the savings could be phenomenal. Additionally, automated technology could reduce fuel costs by as much as 7 percent. And with the increased productivity that will occur when robots take the wheel, millions and possibly billions of dollars could be saved.

Myth #4: Autonomous Trucks Will be Able to Operate in All Types of Conditions

While fully autonomous trucks (L5) may be able to operate in all types of conditions in the distant future, the automated technology is currently being designed to be used only on highways and when weather conditions permit. Driving in heavy rain, snow, heavy winds, or inside cities and suburban areas will still be left for the truck driver to handle. Additionally, human truck drivers will still be needed to handle many of the other duties associated with load delivery and pick-up.

Myth #5: Autonomous Cars Will Be Commonplace Before Self-Driving Trucks Fill America’s Highways

While it has been said that the autonomous vehicle industry is geared more toward the average consumer and promoted as an optional luxury for high-end cars, the reality is that self-driving large trucks will likely hit America’s roadways long before private autonomous cars become commonplace. With current technology, autonomous vehicles are being designed with a focus on highway travel, not to maneuver through busy city streets filled with bicycles, pedestrians, or rush-hour traffic. Since large trucks spend most of their time on highways, the technology is currently more fitting for them as opposed to smaller passenger vehicles.

In addition to improving large truck safety, reducing costs for the industry, enhancing the economy, and increasing productivity, it is hoped that the use of autonomous trucks will make truck driving a more attractive occupation, thereby increasing the number of individuals who will choose trucking as a career.