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What's Going On With Autonomous Trucking?

Given the recent rise of Tesla’s self-driving cars in the last 10 years, and with Autopilot being an add-on feature in their electric cars since 2014, the idea of owning an autonomous car is now a true reality.

Automation is also seen to be the next great horizon for trucking. As supply chain pressures have increased over the last few years, experts predict change is likely within the trucking industry. Technologies such as AI, IoT, advanced data analytics and machine learning is helping to drive this change.

Is this really necessary?

Truck drivers often drive for long hours, with a 70 hour working week coming as standard to many in the industry. This causes mounting health and safety risks due to driving whilst tired.

Adding to this, the supply chain has become increasingly more reliant on a delivery which is faster and more traceable to help increase efficiency and create solutions more easily when issues arise.

As a result, logistics giants such as Amazon have invested heavily in self-driving trucks. Amazon’s investment includes a patent for autonomous lane-switching technologies as well as working on a multi-function autonomous vehicle with Toyota.

Autonomous trucks could help to resolve a shortage of truck drivers in the industry

What are the implications?

There are several pros and cons to any such investment, with a transition to automation bringing with it increasing concern over job losses. In spite of this, autonomous trucking may, instead, fill significant driver shortages.

John Verdon, Waymo’s business development and partnerships lead, acknowledges that this technology should help overcome these shortcomings.

He said, “One of the strains in the industry is a driver shortage. The technology can help narrow the 60,000 shortfall of drivers we have in the US – a gap that’s projected to widen to 160,000 within the decade. We’re optimistic that this technology will spawn many new jobs and businesses, some that have yet to be imagined.”

The arrival of autonomous vehicles into the trucking industry will increase efficiency in the overall market, as 65% of America’s consumable goods are trucked around the country. Full autonomy would also decrease operating costs by around 45% which would save the for-hire trucking industry between $85-$125bn. However, full autonomy is still unlikely for a few decades at least.

Professor Patrick Penfield, who researches supply chain practice, also noted that implementation would enable trucks to “operate 24 hours a day and at a consistent mileage rate, making trucks safer and more fuel efficient. Freight will arrive at a destination faster. A human truck driver usually takes five days to go from New York to Los Angeles. It’ll take an AT 48 hours.”

Automation is already commonplace in America's seaports

Does automation in the industry already exist?

Almost a dozen companies are developing autonomous trucking technologies. San Diago-based TuSimple is currently working with truck manufacturer Navistar and shipping giant UPS to conduct test operations in Arizona and Texas, including depot-to-depot autonomous runs. During testing, someone also rides in the cab to take the wheel if necessary. The start-up hopes to remove this human supervision at some point this year.

Sea ports are also already utilising automation to increase efficiency. For example TraPac’s terminal in Los Angeles uses robotically-powered systems enabled with AI for horizontal transport and automated cranes for container stacking and on-dock rail operations.

In spite of these technological advances, industry experts acknowledge that the transition won’t happen overnight.

Waymo’s John Verdon has said that “It won’t be a flip of a switch. It will be a gradual introduction driven by safety and tech readiness, versus and arbitrary, specific point in time. From our standpoint, it’s really about getting to a place where we can repeat that safe, capable, consistent performance at scale.”

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