There are a number of issues that self-driving trucks could solve, but is it at the expense of truck driver jobs? Although most startups plan to keep drivers behind the wheel, that might not last long, as the technology gets better over time.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 94 percent of all fatal crashes are caused by human error, with the top four reasons being alcohol use, excessive speed, fatigue and driver distraction. Proponents of self-driving trucks believe that eliminating human error could drastically reduce these deaths.
It is also believed that self-driving trucks could help to stretch out the short supply of long-haul drivers, so let’s start there.
Why the Driver Shortage?
Trucking jobs remain one of the country’s most common occupations, but the transportation sector has struggled with a growing driver shortage over the past 15 years. The reality is that there are just more drivers leaving the industry than there are drivers entering.
According to a 2015 analysis from the American Trucking Associations, a growing shortage of qualified truck drivers (about 50,000 now) could reach 175,000 by 2024. The report notes that over the next decade, trucking will need to hire 890,000 new drivers, or an average of 89,000 per year.
The biggest factor for the shortage: a workforce reaching retirement age. The median age of over-the-road truck drivers is 49, while the median age of private fleet drivers is 52. Meanwhile, the median for all U.S. workers is 42.
About 45 percent of demand for new drivers comes from the need to replace retiring drivers, while industry growth accounts for about 33 percent of the shortage, according to ATA’s report.
Driver Assistance Systems
It’s generally understood that advanced driver assistance systems will play a big role in trucks of the future. Safety systems that allow for automatic braking, lane keeping, and adaptive cruise have paved the way for self-driving trucks.
How much will they cost? Until this advanced technology is commercialized, it’s going to be expensive. For that reason, the economics of self-driving trucks won’t make sense until equipment costs come down.
Keeping the Driver in the Cab
Currently, federal regulations require a driver in every cab, with strict work hour restrictions.
Most developers envision semi-autonomous teams where humans and autonomous trucks share the workload; drivers handle the local driving, making pickups and deliveries, while the “auto-pilot” takes the routine highway miles.
Given this partnership, would regulations be relaxed to allow drivers more hours in self-driving trucks?
A Long Road Ahead
According to NHTSA, 37,561 lives were lost on U.S. roads in 2016, an increase of 5.6 percent over 2015. Of that number, 3,986 deaths involved large trucks, which is a much more relevant figure to consider in the self-driving-truck discussion.
Even with the most recent advances in technology, we have to realize the dangers still exist. Self-driving trucks probably won’t eliminate all crashes and might even create new safety risks, particularly in the near term.
Safety advocates are pushing Congress to address self-driving vehicle regulations and safety standards.
First, they need to develop practical safety testing methods and a framework that defines what level of safety performance self-driving trucks need to meet before they’re allowed on the roads. A lower level of safety would be OK for demonstration projects in some environments, but a higher level may be needed for uncontrolled environments.
Some states already have released rules for autonomous vehicles, but they don’t specify testing requirements or develop such a framework. Regulatory framework will take time. Pilot studies start with real-world testing in controlled conditions, like operating in well-maintained areas and climates, and expand as safety is demonstrated.
How Safe Will They Be?
There’s no consensus on how safe self-driving trucks should be before they’re allowed on the roads. As self-driving trucks use artificial intelligence to make real-time decisions, they require learning experience in real-world settings, which is then shared to improve the performance of the entire fleet.
It’s like allowing teenage drivers on the road. They might not be safe drivers yet, but with good on-road experience, they can become safe drivers. Self-driving trucks need that learning experience as well.
It’s probably going to be a while before self-driving trucks learn how to handle things like inclement weather conditions, difficult terrains or urban environments. Until then, they pose risks to themselves and others.
Freight is a Hyper-Competitive Market
The trucking industry is growing. In 2016 alone, it generated $676 billion — about three-quarters of the nation’s freight bill.
Reducing labor cost is certainly an issue that makes self-driving trucks logistically attractive. But self-driving trucks are also more fuel-efficient. Allowing the truck to make its own speed, braking, and acceleration decisions could improve fuel economy by six percent. That’s a six percent reduction in emissions too. Liability costs would also go down. Using autonomous technology to help reduce accidents should lower insurance premiums and repair costs over time as accident rates go down.
There’s a lot riding on how well self-driving trucks share the road with human-operated vehicles. Safety concerns remain a sticking point, which means drivers will probably need to be in every cab for many years to come.