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Self-Driving Trucks -- Where are They Headed?

Aug 09, 2018

It’s been a few years since the first self-driving semi-truck hit the road. Since then, developers and manufacturers of autonomous truck driving technology have continued to make progress. Yet, they still have a ways to go before they overtake the industry. So, what’s the hold up? How can self-driving truck technology be used in logistics now and in the future? And, what are their possible benefits and impacts on trucking and freight shipping in general? 

Self-driving Trucks - American Group.jpgWhat’s delaying self-driving trucks?

Before self-driving trucks can become a reality there are several hurdles to overcome. They include:

  • Designing and developing a completely autonomous solution
  • Improving public perception
  • Developing a Federal regulatory framework

Although developers and manufacturers are making progress, they still have many details to resolve before a truly autonomous trucking solution is ready for the road. With the size and weight of tractor trailers, most people aren’t ready to see trucks traveling down the road without a human driver behind the wheel. It will take some time before they’ll be comfortable with such an experience, especially on local roads and city streets. Plus, like all Federal regulatory frameworks, the development of such rules will probably take years. Fortunately, the process of addressing these has already begun. 

Self-driving truck technology, now and in the future 

  • Driver-Assist Evolution – Technology companies are continually developing the different types of automation necessary for a driverless self-driving truck to become a reality. As these individual automations become available, truck manufacturers are offering them as options. These advanced driver-assist systems increase the functions that support rather than replace the driver. These commercial truck safety systems currently include collision mitigation, adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings. Automated steering functions are anticipated in the years ahead. This should get the trucking industry closer to semi-autonomous operations and increase safety while making life a bit more pleasant for drivers.
  • Transfer Hub Model– This approach to introducing unmanned trucks involves limiting their use to major freeway travel on long haul routes. It entails drivers handling the more complex driving tasks from point of origin to highway and from highway to final destination. Drivers would exchange trailers with autonomous trucks at transfer stations situated near highway exits. Autonomous trucks would then transport loads between exits. This would shift truck driving professionals to more desirable regional and short haul jobs allowing for more home time.
  • Teleoperation Remotely Monitored Trucks – Another approach to using self-driving freight trucks for long hauls is to utilize remote drivers. In this model, drivers oversee the progress of trucks from a desk. Whenever a truck needs to change lanes or pass a vehicle, the remote driver makes the decision of when to do so by views from onboard cameras. In low-speed environments like truck terminals or loading docks, remote drivers may also control trucks with steering wheels at their desks. This is thought to be one solution to solve the trucking industry’s driver recruitment challenge. Like the transfer hub model, this allows drivers to have more home time and a better quality of life. 
  • Unmanned ‘Follower’ Trucks – This model involves truck platooning technology and could lead to the increased use of autonomous trucks. It allows two or more trucks to safely travel close together in an aerodynamic convoy. This is accomplished through synchronized braking and adaptive cruise control via exclusive short-range communications. It is thought that a platoon of driverless trucks could be led by a manned one. Initially all trucks in the platoon will need to contain drivers until the technology is fully proven on the roads. This concept is projected to reduce fuel consumption by 4.5% on average with the rear truck in a convoy saving up to 10%.
  • Private Site Operation – This model is already in use on some private sites in the mining and agriculture industries. In these applications, manned or unmanned automated vehicles drive themselves from point A to point B on private roads where there are no pedestrians, cars or cyclists to avoid. Other potential uses of this type of operation include logistics yards and ports. The biggest challenges in both would be the non-driving requirements that drivers currently fulfill, like trailer hook-ups. Port drayage, from port to distribution center, could also be a potential application further in the future. This would involve more regulation, though, since it would involve public roads. 

Possible benefits and industry impacts

There are many variations on the self-driving truck theme. Depending on the version, there are many possible benefits. These include:

  • increased road safety
  • reduced accidents involving trucks
  • reduced insurance costs
  • reduced road congestion
  • reduced labor costs
  • reduced fuel costs
  • increased productivity
  • evolving roles for truck-drivers

The increased road safety, reduced accidents involving trucks and reduced insurance costs are all tied together. There are over 4,000 fatalities from large truck crashes each year in the United States. Some of these have been found to be related to driver fatigue. Reducing or eliminating these would not only increase road safety and accidents, it would reduce carrier insurance costs.

It is thought that certain versions of self-driving trucks will also reduce road congestion, labor and fuel costs. The road congestion reduction would be advantageous for other vehicles while potentially lengthening the life of these highways. The reduced labor and fuel costs would reduce carrier costs that could potentially contain rising shipping costs.

The ability to do more with less drivers, as caused by the driver shortage, would be a huge benefit of these technologies.

Some have expressed a concern that thousands of truck drivers could lose their jobs. In reality, what will most likely happen as autonomous truck technology evolves, their jobs will evolve along with the technology. Trucks aren’t going to suddenly be completely autonomous, if ever. But, they will be involved in truck movement and operation for the foreseeable future in one way or another.

Self-driving freight trucks have the potential to positively impact the logistics industry. Exactly when this will happen is yet to be seen. Stay tuned for future updates! 

In the meanwhile, do you need help preparing a freight shipment? Contact American Group.

American Group is a 3PL with decades of experience guiding businesses through the selection, preparation, and shipping of their freight. Contact us for assistance with your next shipment by phone at 866-553-6608 or by email at Info@ShipAG.com. We’re here to make Shipping.Simplified®.

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