By Selika Josiah Talbott, Forbes
Autonomous vehicles are coming. Trucks carrying freight will likely be the first vehicles to see widespread autonomous use. That is good for everybody. When we recognize the importance of trucking to our economy and way of life it is easy to see the benefits of AV trucking.
The freight business in America is an $800 billion dollar a year enterprise which explains why truck driver is the number 1 job in 29 states in America. But the age of the average truck driver is 57 and increasing and approximately 4,900 people die each year on U.S. roadways in a truck involved crash.
Safety is a large priority when it comes to the operation of trucks. Through the years federal regulation has both increased and decreased how many hours a driver operates a truck – generally depending on the administration in the White House. In fact, under the Trump administration, we saw additional flexibility for drivers allowing more hours of operation and options for short-haul drivers allowing them more mileage without having to rest than in the Obama Administration.
Autonomous Vehicles may well quell the see-saw in driving hours of service for truckers. The U.S. has seen several trucking companies piloting autonomous vehicles throughout the country, and it cannot come fast enough. Between natural disasters, distracted driving, decrease in the pool of professional drivers and defective roadways, the conditions for motorists are dangerous.
The value of the companies that are at the forefront of autonomous trucking cannot be overstated. If we get it right these trucks operating at even just level 3 and level 4 autonomy will greatly increase safety on our roads, address the shortage of drivers, and serve to be the eyes of defective roadways that need to be repaired and alert officials. Autonomous Vehicle trucking will limit the need for the regulation of hours of service for vehicles that are equipped and operating in autonomous mode. The artificial intelligence doesn’t need rest and will be able to drive essentially 24 hours a day unlike a human driver.
It has been seen acutely during the response to the Covid-19 pandemic that autonomous vehicles can be a vital part of our transportation network. The likes of TuSimple, Embark, Kodiak and Plus are among autonomous vehicle technology companies that were able to make deliveries at the height of the pandemic. What these companies will need in order to accelerate the usage of their autonomous technology is a government regulatory scheme that provides for a consistent set of regulations across all states as to what they can carry, when they can operate and where they can drive.
While we can appreciate that the general public needs to get comfortable with the idea of an 80,000-pound vehicle on the highway next to them, we must realize that this notion of autonomous driving already exists in flight. Millions of people get on planes across the world every day and are safely taken from one location to the next via automatic piloting.
For those who are concerned about workforce impacts we see Autonomous Vehicle trucking companies making strides to encourage workforce initiatives to combat displacement. TuSimple works with Pima Community College to train students on new skills in Autonomous Vehicle Technology for trucking. TuSimple also provided food bank runs across the south as well as partnered with industry leaders such as Navistar and U.S. Xpress to bring autonomous trucks to market.
We also see the progression of Plus an American autonomous trucking company that is testing their freight movement both in the U.S. and in China. Plus, has contracted with some of the biggest Chinese trucking companies and is now preparing to launch level three freight movement throughout China. This bodes well for progress in the industry. Many of the same issues involving trucking in America are being felt globally.
Kodiak is another autonomous trucking company that is making great strides in the autonomous freight area. They recently made their first disengagement free deliveries and can boast a100% on time-deliveries for commercial operations between Dallas and Houston.
Autonomous trucks can also address worldwide concern on sustainability and the impact on the environment from greenhouse gases. Opportunities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by trucks are starting to take place across the supply chain.
Embark, a San Francisco based AV trucking company has a transfer hub model which pairs well with initial deployments of zero-emission trucks. For many, it will likely take years before charging and hydrogen fueling infrastructure will scale to support long-haul trucking. However, short-haul routes provide a fit for zero-emission truck deployment as the charging and fueling infrastructure can be more centralized. Embark’s model connects short-haul with long-haul loads at distribution hubs located at the edge of metro areas. By optimizing the use case for short-haul trucking, Embark can accelerate zero-emission vehicle adoption among their regional fleets.
While all this sounds good, autonomous trucks still have a way to go before they are widespread. For those who are worried about the workforce, as my old boss, former FMCSA Administrator Raymond Martinez used to say, “if you start as a truck driver today, you will likely retire as one”. The real work ahead is to figure out a prototype across the nation that addresses increased training and identifies other careers that can be a natural segue for professional truck drivers. The people who are most likely to be negatively affected would be drivers who cannot easily transition to another occupation and certainly not one that provides them the freedom of entrepreneurship as professional driving does today. Trucking has afforded many a viable income and helped to sustain their families, but it has been less accessible to women who as primary family caretakers are generally unable to be away from home overnight.
To the C-suite folks out there, it makes a difference to the bottom line if your Corporate and advisory boards or C-suites are not only giving thought, but taking action to lessen the impact on the workforce because of this disruptive time in transportation innovation. CEOs will need more that scientists and big business buddies to see us through this phase. Thoughtful equity and political economy strategy will be required to see us safely through to a new model of trucking.