Imagine, if you can, a truck driver who doesn’t sleep but never gets tired. Imagine a logistics system where the freight driver can run 24/7 without taking a break. The American Trucking Industry is an essential economic driver and employer, but autonomous trucking can work with drivers to produce better outcomes for consumers, logistics systems, and pedestrian vehicles. In an autonomous future, trucking can be safer and more efficient, but reaching this goal will take concerted effort and leadership from developers and regulators.
Currently, logistics systems continue to face shipping delays and worker shortages that threaten to derail the industry during one of the busiest times of the year. An increase in demand put stress on a shipping system that responded to the drop in demand during the pandemic. This created a backlog in ports and shipping systems across the country and worldwide. The increased popularity of online shopping only adds to the workload.
Compounding the problem is a historic driver shortage facing the trucking industry. In October, the American Trucking Association reported that the industry was short by 80,000 drivers – an all-time high. Due to continued retirement and a lack of replacement, the association estimated the shortage could double by 2030. Bob Costello, American Trucking Associations’ Chief Economist, said, “A thing to note about the shortage is that before the pandemic, we were adding drivers to the industry – even though we had a shortage, more people were entering the industry. The issue is that new entrants into the industry didn’t keep up with demand for goods.” While trucking companies have tried to make the job more attractive through increased pay and adjustments to improve lifestyle, the trucking industry needs help to maintain and increase efficiency.
Autonomous trucking could revolutionize shipping by making transport safer and more efficient. While truck drivers are generally safe and cautious while on the road, they must be on guard at all times. Drivers need good rest to prepare for the unique challenges of the job. Current regulations require that a driver log no more than 11 hours a day. Although drivers put in long shifts, idle trucks mean longer shipping times and less efficient outcomes. Driverless trucks, however, could be operating 24 hours a day. Although these trucks might still need drivers in the cab, networks could design systems that take advantage of autonomous capabilities. Already companies like Ryder are testing autonomous trucking. Ryder found that their autonomous hub networks, which utilize autonomous driving for middle-mile transport, could save shipping companies 40% partly by reducing miles driven with an empty trailer. Ryder executive vice president Karen Jones said, “Today, I have to wait to get another driver. There’s a lot of lost time in the transfer of goods. [Autonomous trucking] has the promise to keep everything moving around the clock.”
Autonomous trucks are already on the road in multiple states. In Texas, UPS and Waymo will be expanding their partnership to include deliveries made using class 8 freight vehicles. Waymo will deploy their fleet of Peterbilt trucks along the road from Dallas to Houston as they deliver goods, gather data, and help UPS meet their holiday deadlines. This year, Walmart has partnered with Gatik, an autonomous trucking company, to transport goods from fulfillment centers to stores in the area around their Bentonville, Arkansas headquarters, without a safety driver. To see widespread use, however, autonomous trucks will need to gain the trust and support of the general driving public.
While some autonomous trucks can deliver goods without safety drivers, to start autonomous trucks will most likely continue to have drivers in the cab while they operate. The presence of a safety driver will lower public concern. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that many drivers have shared the highway with an autonomous truck already and have not known the difference. The public is getting acquainted with autonomous technology through robots like Nuro and autonomous shuttles across the country. Overall, the autonomous industry has been a valued keeper of the public trust and takes safety very seriously. The best thing that autonomous companies can do to encourage public acceptance of autonomous technology is to treat the public with respect, deference, and deep caution.
Unfortunately for autonomous vehicles, certain manufacturers have piqued federal regulators’ interest. While autonomous technology has flourished under previous deferential regulatory regimes, the Biden Administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have expressed caution toward the autonomous sector and the need for policy to “catch up” to the technology. Most expect regulators to announce new regulations on autonomous vehicles in the near future. Earlier this year, NHTSA issued a standing order requiring the disclosure of wrecks involving autonomous technology, a precursor to regulations.
Regulations are actually a sign that the industry is maturing. It is due to leaps in autonomous technology that regulators would even consider passing down comprehensive standards. In fact, regulations could help the industry build trust with the public. However, regulators should seek to devise a regime that supports truck drivers, defends the public interest, and allows responsible companies to test and grow. These interests do not have to conflict and can assist the development of autonomous trucking as a solution to the problems facing the sector.
The trucking industry is a valuable and vital player in our nation’s logistics systems. Truckers, however, are staring down a shortage that could cripple their efficiency while dealing with increased demand. Meanwhile, thousands of large trucks are involved in fatal wrecks every year. The intensity of truck driving requires that drivers exert lots of energy to focus on the task at hand. Autonomous trucks are a reality, and their continued development could provide an answer to the issues facing our nation’s trucking industry. Developers must safeguard and continue to build trust with the public. Regulators can assist in this process but must develop standards that allow technology to grow and change.