Across the globe, approximately 12 billion tons of freight are transported every year by big-rig trucks. This transport is vital for the maintenance of global supply chains, and provides a large number of jobs. In 2020, the US freight industry employed over 902,000 truck drivers, and had capacity for a further 80,000 jobs in 2021. Yet with the advent of autonomous trucks, there is growing concern as to how the freight industry is set to change, and the impact that this might have on truck drivers' livelihoods.
There are plenty of indicators that the freight industry is in a period of transition. Automated transport startups such as Kodiak Robotics are successfully securing large amounts of new capital, Uber is preparing to launch food deliveries with self-driving cars this year, and companies such as Aurora, Tesla, TuSimple and Alphabet-owned Waymo compete with one another to advance their driverless technology. The latter of these forward-thinking companies is also developing infrastructure to support self-driving freight at a new Waymo logistics hub in Dallas, Texas.
Throughout history, the adoption of new technology has been met with concern amongst those working across a broad range of industries. However, this concern is often unnecessary, as new developments often bring in new opportunities, and help to develop old ones. In this article, we’ll offer some insight into how the adoption of driverless trucking technology will impact the freight industry, and what this might look like for truck drivers, as well as the industry at large.
The impact of self-driving trucks on the trucking industry is largely dependent on the degree of automation put into practice. These degrees are described by the Society of Automotive Engineers using a hierarchy of automation ranging between 0 and 5. Levels between 0 and 3 range from no assistance at all, through innovations such as cruise control and onto assisted braking and steering.
Level 4 represents vehicles which can conduct most driving tasks, and yet require human drivers to take control in certain circumstances such as urban driving. Level 5 is the final tier of automation, and represents those vehicles which can execute driving tasks entirely without human intervention.
In time, as higher levels of automation become more accessible, it’s likely that a hub-to-hub model of logistics will be adopted. In this model, trucks will drive autonomously on highways and will then be guided through urban environments to their local destinations by human drivers.
For the time being, only the lower levels of automation are widely accessible. Yet even as levels 4 and 5 vehicles are being tested and implemented, these forms of self-driving technologies are primarily being used to support truck drivers.
Some automated trucks, such as the Tesla Semi, literally place the driver at the center, offering a range of features to make the driver’s job easier. In the case of Tesla’s Enhanced Autopilot, this means that the truck can provide cruise control capable of steering and changing speeds in response to surrounding traffic, and according to Xiaoling Han, the founder of TuSimple, level 4 and 5 automation will allow drivers to rest whilst driving long-haul, overnight trips on empty roads.
Even with the eventual implementation of completely driverless trucks, drivers will still play an essential role in the trucking industry. While computers may be trusted to drive long, heavy 18-wheelers on relatively straight and clear highways, cities offer many more obstacles. As a result, it’s likely that drivers will still be required to handle the more complex tasks of delivering freight between outer-city hubs and specific inner-city locations. This will allow drivers to continue working, while staying closer to their homes and families.
It’s probable that the introduction of self-driving trucks will help to create more truck driving jobs.
The implementation of technology such as self-driving trucks is helping to significantly increase the efficiency, safety and speed of freight by road. These developments will allow freight to continue growing as an appealing option to shippers, creating more demand for truckers to support the industry.
This increase in demand is likely to improve an already lucrative period for truckers. There is currently a shortage of drivers in the US, with 80,000 positions available as of 2021. American Trucking Associations identifies that, due to this high demand, truckers are earning five times their historical average wage, and the 91% turnover of truckers demonstrates their ability to pursue better and higher paying positions by switching roles between competitive haulier companies.
Therefore, the introduction of autonomous driving technology should be an exciting prospect for both current drivers, and those looking to begin truck driving, as it should drive demand in an already high-demand labor market. It’s also worth noting that with the eventual implementation of hub-to-hub systems, new jobs are likely to be created to ensure that these hubs work safely and effectively.
In terms of technology, self-driving trucks have already been implemented effectively, albeit on a limited scale. For example, TuSimple conducted a successful test at the end of 2021 in which an automated semi-truck made an 80 mile trip between Tucson and Phoenix in Arizona without any human intervention.
However, it’s unlikely that completely autonomous vehicles will become a mainstream option for haulers for some time to come. Most of the currently available technology still requires oversight by drivers, and cannot be considered fully automated.
Moreover, the cost of self-driving trucks is currently a barrier to their general adoption. For example, the starting price for a Tesla Semi is $150,000 and requires a base reservation of $20,000, putting it out of the immediate financial accessibility of most owner-operators, and requiring a significant investment from trucking companies.
According to Ansys, we are likely to see a growing number of driverless or supported trucks on the road over the next decade. However, it’s likely to be several decades until level 5 driverless trucks become commonplace.
It’s hard to know exactly how a future with self-driving trucks will look, but there’s no cause for concern. As the trucking industry continues to grow, and demand for truckers remains high, there’s a lot of opportunity for both current and prospective truckers to work effectively alongside new trucking technology.
For more information on the role that technology can play in the trucking industry, explore the FleetOps site today.
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