Is Autonomous Trucking Really Feasible? The Technology Is Close to a Breakthrough
Updated: Dec 16, 2021
According to statistics from Acumen Research and Consulting, the autonomous truck market is predicted to reach $88 billion by 2027. Experts indicate that autonomous technology has potential to revolutionize the global trucking industry, a sector worth approximately $700 billion a year.
Autonomous trucking boasts some significant benefits, but prior to its widespread implementation, there remain some possible negatives and hurdles that must be taken into consideration.
Benefits of Autonomous Trucking
There are numerous benefits to autonomy. These include a significant reduction in operational costs and streamlined delivery lead times. Experts estimate that truck usage will rise from 29 percent to 79 percent thanks to autonomous technology.
Machines do not need to take rest breaks or vacations. They can work day and night, enabling freight companies to exploit their latent capacity. They could also help to resolve mounting staffing issues, with qualified truck drivers in increasingly short supply.
Autonomous trucks could also reduce the environmental impact of trucking, since platooning reduces air drag and improves fuel consumption.
Potential Negatives of Autonomous Trucking
In terms of the human challenges posed by autonomy, as with any industry, one major concern is the possible loss of human jobs. It is difficult to predict how autonomous trucking would impact employment numbers. Although people’s first thought may be of drivers, currently there is an extreme shortage of drivers, which is predicted to worsen over the next decade as swathes of drivers retire without being replaced.
Additionally, autonomous vehicles still need plenty of human oversight in the short term in terms of monitoring and assistance. In the longer term, autonomy is predicted to create a significant number of new jobs, although analysts warn that it could cause a ripple effect, triggering job losses in other sectors. With fewer drivers on the roads, gas stations, restaurants, and motels located near busy highways will experience a reduction in business, which could in turn impact employment rates.
John Verdon of Waymo, a California-based subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, indicates that these changes will not occur suddenly. Instead, Verdon predicts a gradual introduction propelled by safety and tech readiness. Change will occur as the industry arrives at a place where it can repeat safe, consistent, capable performance at scale.
Challenges in the Implementation of Autonomous Trucking
There are numerous significant challenges that will need to be overcome before self-driving trucks become a reality. First and foremost is safety. Because they have the ability to prevent the more than 90 percent of road accidents that are caused by human error, industry experts tout autonomous vehicles as a safer alternative to human drivers. After all, they do not run red lights because they are late for their next meeting, drive drunk, or fall asleep behind the wheel.
Nevertheless, in the wake of a spate of fatal Tesla accidents, including a recent crash in Florida where a car reportedly careened off the road, crashing into a tree and catching on fire, there is increased need for public reassurance. There have also been reported instances of autonomous cars running red lights and stop signs and crashing into trees, buildings, and other vehicles. Autonomous technology is not yet ready for full-scale implementation, given the potentially devastating consequences if something goes wrong.
DFDS Senior Project Manager of Innovation and Technology, Mads Bentzen Billeso, points towards a 2 to 5 percent failure rate as reassurance that autonomous vehicles are safer than human drivers. However, some would argue that this figure is still too high.
There are also legal considerations. Current US liability regulations are based on the premise that the negligent driver is liable in the event of an accident. However, with autonomous vehicles, there are no drivers, so who should be culpable? Is it the manufacturer’s responsibility, or the owner’s?
Companies Already in the Autonomous Trucking Space
California-based self-driving truck company TuSimple has been testing autonomous trucks in New Mexico and Arizona since early 2021, all completely automated, albeit with human supervision.
Goodyear has announced that the leading tire manufacturer would be entering into a multi-year collaboration with Gatik, an autonomous trucking company, to develop mobility solutions for the autonomous short-haul logistics industry. As part of the deal, Goodyear’s venture capital fund will participate in Series B funding for Gatik, enabling the two companies to collaborate on multiple projects.
Goodyear will provide its innovative SightLine tire intelligence solutions for Gatik’s medium-duty fleet. A spokesperson for Gatik predicted that use of Goodyear’s intelligent tire solutions would help to reduce maintenance costs and save fuel, while simultaneously increasing operational efficiencies.
Companies like Volvo and Scania are already well on the way to developing self-driving fleets. Scania’s first fleet of semi-autonomous trucks completed a journey between Sweden and the Netherlands as early as 2016 using a technique called “platooning,” with a driver piloting the lead vehicle with the other trucks following along autonomously. Meanwhile, Volvo entered into a contract with a Swedish mine last year, bringing its autonomous logistics products to market for the first time. But is autonomous trucking really safe?