The transportation industry, including the trucking sector, is looking to revolutionize what goes on behind the wheel with driverless vehicles. Will we really be seeing self-driving trucks down the road?
Currently, there are 3.5 million professional truckers on American roads responsible for hauling more than 10 billion tons of freight each year. It’s a tough job and it can be lonely and many believe the industry is ripe for disruption with the introduction of autonomous vehicles. Moreover, we may even see driverless trucks before the driverless car. In fact, in May 2015, the first self-driving truck hit the American road in Nevada, and there have been several tests around the world since then, including a convoy that drove across Europe to the port of Rotterdam in April. The convoy used a new automated driving technology called platooning, which connects trucks using Wi-Fi, sensors, GPS and cameras. The lead vehicle dictates speed and direction, while the rest automatically steer, speed up and slow down in close convoy.
In San Francisco, former Googlers have launched a startup called Otto, which started out with tools to help truck drivers perform their job with increased safety, but now is working on technology that, in time, could automate portions of the drive on highways. Rather than eliminating drivers by making them obsolete, the immediate goal for Otto is assisting them. Its aim, among other things, is to let drivers safely take a sleep break while enabling their trucks to drive autonomously. According to the company, it has already completed one public highway demo of its system, and it is developing grander plans beyond that.
The trucking industry despite these developments is downplaying the disruption that’s taking place, saying that individuals will still be needed behind the wheel for complex maneuvers and oversight. “You are not going to see a truck without a driver in it for a long time,” says Ted Scott from the American Trucking Association, in an article in Tech Crunch. “The human being is an excellent driver 99.9% of the time. It’s just a tiny instance every now and then that causes a problem. Computers break down more than that.”
However, the potential savings from autonomous trucking to the freight transportation industry is estimated to be $168 billion annually, according to Morgan Stanley, which makes it an attractive endeavor. This savings is expected to come from reduced labor costs ($70 billion), improved fuel efficiency ($35 billion), increased productivity ($27 billion) and accident prevention ($36 billion), before including any estimates from non-truck freight modes like air and rail. In addition to cost savings, fleets of automated trucks could save lives. Crashes involving large trucks killed 3,903 people in the U.S. in 2014, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and a further 110,000 people were injured. More than 90% of the accidents were caused at least in part by driver error.
What do self-driving trucks portend for the industry? Trucking represents the largest job in 29 states. Moreover, not only do the 3.5 million truckers on the road today depend on the industry for their livelihood but also millions more depend on the truckers who stop for food, drink and sleep along their routes. Such disruption will surely impact many within and outside the industry. As technology progresses and the regulatory landscape takes shape to address autonomous vehicles of any kind, we will continue to cover this topic, including potential insurance implications. RPS provides end-to-end transportation insurance solutions for commercial trucks, commercial autos, public fleets, and the many industry niches that fall within each industry sector.