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To many people, the concept of a self-driving truck sounds like something that’s straight out of a Star Trek episode. However, the technology has already been developed to allow autonomous vehicles to operate under certain conditions (with a little human intervention when necessary). Self-driving semi-trucks may not be commercially available, but there’s a lot of interest in making them a reality on U.S. highways. This won’t necessarily happen in the next few years, but it probably will in the next few decades.
Sites like TruckDriverNews.com regularly report on advancements in this technology, since it directly affects truck drivers. Maybe not for a while, but the trucking industry is constantly changing and responding to new advancements, as well as challenges. The concern is that autonomous vehicles will do away with the need for truck drivers, putting millions of people out of work as trucking fleets are switched over to driverless vehicles.
On the surface, this seems like a logical assumption. However, there are several reasons why this likely won’t happen. For one thing, trucking companies are mainly interested in using self-driving trucks for long-haul routes, not deliveries in urban areas. This means that many driving jobs aren’t even remotely at risk of being replaced by automated driving technology. For another thing, the driving jobs that are lost to self-driving vehicles could be replaced by jobs in other areas of the industry, such as storage facilities or shipping hubs. All things considered, experts aren’t too worried that driverless trucks will heavily impact job prospects in the trucking industry.
Advantages of driverless trucks
Proponents of driverless technology have plenty to talk about, as the trucking industry could benefit greatly from autonomous semi-trucks. Here are some of the main advantages of using self-driving trucks for transporting goods.
- Driverless trucks can help alleviate the truck driver shortage. According to some estimates, there are as many as 80,000 unfilled jobs in the trucking industry. This is due to many different factors, some of which are fixable, and some of which aren’t. However, if the trucks could keep rolling without the need for drivers, this would mean that a shortage of drivers wouldn’t necessarily cause supply chain issues in the future.
- Self-driving trucks are able to communicate with each other; one of the benefits of this capability is that they can travel in fleets when on the road. This reduces wind resistance, resulting in improved fuel efficiency and higher margins for each trip. Plus, it also helps shave down the amount of time that’s normally wasted due to inefficient braking patterns.
- Driverless trucks are carefully programmed to use the best driving practices, balancing speed with fuel efficiency. Human drivers generally prioritize speed over everything else, since they typically get paid per mile. However, early tests have shown that these vehicles have a 10% improved fuel efficiency compared to traditional big rigs.
- Autonomous trucks can reduce accidents by eliminating the risk of driver fatigue. It’s fairly common for drivers to get drowsy while behind the wheel, resulting in accidents or even fatalities. In 2019, driver fatigue caused 697 deaths, and many more injuries in the U.S. Features like cruise control were introduced to trucking fleets as soon as they were available, and have helped drive down fatigue-related incidents. Since driverless trucks won’t fall asleep at the wheel, they won’t present this type of risk to other motorists.
Disadvantages of driverless trucks
Even though there are plenty of reasons to look forward to self-driving semi trucks, there are other reasons why they may not be entirely welcome on America’s roadways.
- As mentioned above, plenty of people are worried about how driverless trucks will impact trucking jobs. Even though a lot of discussions on this topic tend to take an alarmist angle, there’s no denying that they will put some truckers out of a job. For now, the main question is how many people will have to look for work in other industries, and how many will be able to switch to other jobs within the trucking industry, and possibly at the same company.
- Public buy-in will probably play a role in how many trucking companies actually switch to self-driving fleets. Relevant technologies will continue to advance, autonomous vehicles will be rigorously tested, and regulations will eventually change to cover driverless trucks. However, will public opinion also change along with these advancements? A lot of people simply aren’t comfortable at the thought of glancing over at a multi-ton semi truck, and noticing that it doesn’t have a driver. It’s an unfamiliar concept, and most people don’t realize just how much testing goes into self-driving technology. If autonomous trucks are going to take over long-haul transportation in the future, trucking companies will have to make sure that public attitudes are more accepting.
When will trucking companies start using self-driving semi trucks?
In 2021, TuSimple successfully tested a driverless semi-truck on an 80-mile trip. There was no human intervention, and the truck performed exactly the way it was supposed to. Does this mean that driverless trucks are about to become the norm? Not exactly. Realistically, it will be many years before the technology is ready for mass production. Once that step has been completed, it will take a while longer for trucking companies to switch out their old fleets for self-driving trucks.
There’s also the matter of each truck’s price tag, which will be pretty hefty. Tesla Semis start at $150,000, and trucking companies won’t have the option to buy used models for a cheaper price. This makes driverless trucks inaccessible for many companies, especially smaller ones.
It’s possible to make some general predictions about the future of self-driving trucks, but only time will tell how they actually impact the trucking industry. Some people are excited for them to hit U.S. highways since they’ll improve profit margins and reduce risks. Others are apprehensive about the impact they’ll have on trucking jobs, for obvious reasons. When everything’s said and done, though, there’s no doubt that driverless trucks will represent a huge step forward for the trucking industry.