By Eric Tanenblatt from Dentons, Supply & Demand Chain Executive
Imagine, if you can, a truck driver who doesn’t sleep but never gets tired. Or a logistics system where the freight driver can run 24/7 without taking a break. The American trucking industry is an essential economic engine and employer. With the help of autonomous technology, the trucking industry can produce better outcomes for consumers, logistics systems and pedestrian vehicles. In an autonomous future, trucking can be safer and more efficient, but reaching this goal will take concerted effort and leadership from developers and regulators.
Currently, logistics systems continue to face shipping delays and worker shortages that threaten to derail the industry during one of the busiest times of the year. The increased popularity of online shopping only adds to the workload. Compounding the problem is a historic driver shortage facing the trucking industry. In October, the American Trucking Association reported that the industry was short 80,000 drivers—an all-time high. Due to continued retirements and turnover and a lack of replacements, the association estimated the shortage could double by 2030. While trucking companies have tried to make the job more attractive through increased pay and adjustments to improve lifestyle, the industry needs to undergo transformational change if it is to maintain, and ultimately increase, efficiency.
Autonomous trucking will revolutionize shipping by making transport safer and more efficient. Truck drivers must be well-rested to meet the unique demands of their job. But, this limits the amount of hours trucks can be operating and results in less-efficient outcomes. To address these concerns, companies are using autonomous trucking. To see widespread use, however, autonomous trucks will need to gain the trust and support of the general driving public.
While some autonomous trucks are capable of delivering goods without a safety driver behind the wheel, in the near term most will likely continue to have drivers in the cab while they operate. The presence of a safety driver will lower public concerns. In fact, it is reasonable to assume that many drivers have already shared the road with an autonomous truck and were not aware of doing so. Moreover, the public has become more acquainted with autonomous technology through robots and autonomous vehicles in multiple cities across the country.
Overall, the autonomous industry has been a valued keeper of the public trust and takes safety very seriously. The best thing that companies utilizing autonomous technology can do to encourage public acceptance of autonomous technology is to treat the public with respect, deference and deep caution.
As more companies utilize autonomous technology, consumers will be comforted by new safety standards promulgated by federal regulators. In the past, autonomous technology has grown without strong oversight from the federal government. However, now that the technology has matured and autonomous vehicles (AVs) are starting to hit the road, the industry can no longer operate off a patchwork of state laws and executive orders. Most expect regulators to announce new regulations on AVs in the near future. Earlier this year, the NHTSA issued a standing order requiring the disclosure of wrecks involving autonomous technology, a pre-cursor to regulations. The Biden administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg have expressed caution toward the autonomous sector and have stressed the need for policy to “catch up” to the technology.
Regulations are a sign that the industry is maturing. It is due to leaps in autonomous technology that regulators would even consider passing down comprehensive standards. Regulations will help the industry gain the public’s trust. However, regulators should seek to devise a regime that supports truck drivers, defends the public interest and allows responsible companies to test and grow. These interests do not have to conflict and can assist the development of autonomous trucking as a solution to the problems facing the sector.
The trucking industry is a valuable and vital player in the nation’s logistics systems. Trucking companies, however, are staring down a driver shortage that could cripple their efficiency at a time of increased demand. Meanwhile, thousands of large trucks are involved in fatal wrecks every year. Autonomous trucks are a reality, and their continued development could provide an answer to the issues facing the nation’s trucking industry. AV developers must safeguard and continue to build trust with the public. Regulators can assist in this process but must develop standards that allow technology to grow and change. With all these stakeholders working in tandem toward the common goal of autonomous freight transportation, the trucking industry can thrive as it moves toward a bright autonomous future.