Driverless Trucks Worth the Long-Term Investment

Self-driving vehicles could have an immense impact on logistics and supply chain management.

That’s because autonomous trucks, last-mile delivery robots and other AVs fit themselves into an increasingly automated distribution process. Automating high-volume freight routes has the potential to drive tremendous efficiencies in terms of improved safety, increased capacity, lower operating costs, and a reduced environmental impact. Pilot projects are already underway for technologies like platooning, where a group of vehicles is navigated together with the aid of connectivity and automation, while AV companies including Waymo and TuSimple have partnered with parcel delivery services such as UPS and the US Postal Service to reduce delivery times.

Gartner analyst Bart De Muynck said that while self-driving trucks won’t become commercially available for at least another three years, supply chain technology leaders responsible for transportation should be preparing now for an autonomous future. “Autonomous trucks are part of the road to full automation across the supply chain, from autonomous inventory planning to autonomous dispatch to autonomous distribution,” he said. “AVs will have a huge impact on the supply chain. We’re not quite there yet from an adoption and regulation perspective but there’s a huge market potential both from revenue and a cost savings perspective.”

In a March report, the research firm predicted that by 2030, autonomous trucks will be used on a larger scale, making up more than 10% of new heavy class over-the-road truck sales. By 2028, one-fifth of the world’s countries will have active regulations that allow production-ready autonomous vehicles to operate legally, up from zero in 2019.

De Muynck pointed out one of the main stumbling blocks at the moment is a lack of federal legislation that would allow easy interstate transit of goods via autonomous trucks. Currently there are sets of regulations that vary on a state-by-state basis, to say nothing of the challenge of finding common standards and regulatory frameworks for shipping networks that stretch across countries and continents. He says there is also a shortage of autonomous trucks, as production of these vehicles hasn’t yet ramped up, which will take some time.

The major upsides to autonomous trucks, De Muynck says, is the increased productivity achieved by having a vehicle that can operate, essentially, 24/7, stopping only to re-fuel when needed. “We already have a shortage of truck drivers, which is only going to increase, and the autonomous trucks add capacity to the market in terms of transport vehicles and will offset some of that shortage,” he said.

Insurance costs will also come down significantly, which have in the last ten years risen faster than any other associated cost, De Muynck noted. “As long as there are human drivers out there, there will be accidents but you are taking a lot of cases away where it is the truck driver’s fault, due to fatigue or other factors,” he said. “When you take that fatigue away, you improve safety.”

Jim Mullen, TuSimple’s chief administrative and legal officer, agreed, noting autonomous trucking technology could significantly reduce insurance premiums by reducing the number of on-road traffic accidents and fatalities. He said in the future, autonomous trucks would be ideally suited for the long-haul middle mile routes, which are highly sedentary and take people away from home for days and weeks at a time. “We believe autonomous truck technology will make the biggest impact on long-haul, middle mile applications because most of these routes take place over the highway and they are highly repeatable,” he said. “We see autonomous trucks as a solution to today’s driver shortage, which is expected to get worse in the years ahead.”

Safety

Mullen pointed out that an estimated that 80% of freight travels along 20% of American highways. “By automating these high-volume freight routes, there will be tremendous efficiencies gained in terms of improved safety, increased capacity, lower operating costs, and a reduced environmental impact,” he said. He noted that today, 42 states allow for Level 4 truck commercial operations or testing on public roads, which he calls “tremendous progress” in this area in recent years.

Meanwhile, USDOT AV 2.0 and AV 3.0 has laid out important guidance for the testing and deployment of highly automated commercial vehicles but Mullen noted one of the remaining regulatory challenges is to allow autonomous trucks to operate on public roads. He pointed to a recent study sponsored by the Department of Transportation indicating autonomous long-haul trucks are expected to increase total employment, raise annual earnings for US workers and increase GDP.

Gartner’s De Muynck agreed, noting that investing in infrastructure helps in creating a better environment for making interstate autonomous delivery networks a reality. “We won’t see them in large scale in the next ten years but is there huge promise? Yes, they will improve processes and make them faster, increase capacity, increase safety, result in higher productivity, lower cost and shorter transit times – it’s a slam dunk.”


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