Self-Driving Trucks Are Set to Transform Trucking and Logistics

While much of the attention surrounding autonomous vehicles (AVs) is focused on self-driving cars, the real impact will be felt in the shipping, trucking, and logistics industries, where AVs will have a dramatic effect.

Today, the shortage of truck drivers and the need to follow strict federal regulations covering working hours are disrupting status quo across the logistics network. Trucks aren’t where they’re supposed to be, and freight shipments are delayed in getting to their destinations on time.

Electric-powered AVs can alleviate the labor shortage, improve efficiency, smooth out bumps in the logistical network while saving money and lives, and better protect the environment. So, how do we get there from here? Early pilot projects provide a roadmap.

The evolution of truck technology

As we await the mass production of electric-powered AVs, pioneers like Uber and Embark are retrofitting AV technology onto existing trucks. Uber has partnered with Volvo to deliver freight in Arizona, while Embark is using Peterbilt rigs to haul refrigerators from Texas to California. Peterbilt even showed off a Model 579 retrofitted with AV technology at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In the next stage, AVs built from the ground up on an electric-powered foundation will begin shipping. The Tesla self-driving semi-truck will debut next year and the company plans to produce up to 100,000 units a year.

Meanwhile, Volkswagen and Toyota just announced a partnership to develop self-driving trucks, while Volvo and Daimler are also in the game. Taking the technology one step further, Swedish company Einride is currently shipping a windowless AV with no driver’s seat. For now, the T-Pod can travel 125 zero-emission miles on a charge and is already on the job in pilot projects.

According to the 2018 Black & Veatch Smart Cities and Utilities Report, cost and return on investment are major concerns for potential buyers. But Tesla’s $150,000 price tag compares favorably to a $125,000 diesel-powered truck, considering that the Tesla will save $200,000 in fuel costs over the life of the vehicle. And startup Thor Trucks recently introduced an electric semi-tractor that it claims is 70% cheaper in fuel costs and 60% cheaper to maintain per mile than a diesel-powered truck.

How AV technology will roll out

Based on what we’re seeing from Uber and Embark, a common logistical model has emerged. A skilled driver picks up freight and drives to a transfer station on the highway where the trailer is hitched to the self-driving vehicle. A safety driver sits behind the wheel during the trip along the highway. As the truck nears its destination, it pulls into a second transfer station, where the process is reversed.

This long-haul/short-haul system may create a business opportunity supporting trucking and logistics companies to develop transfer stations along major highways that will include high-powered electric charging stations.

Once the industry becomes comfortable with AV technology, the possibilities are endless.

  • Trucking companies can create convoys of AVs that use the drag effect to increase fuel efficiency and save money.
  • AV technologies like self-parking features and collision avoidance can be deployed at the loading dock to reduce accidents.
  • Similarly, AVs can lift the time pressures that truckers face. Drivers will be able to hand the wheel over to the AV system and take a nap or switch to AV mode when loading or unloading to reduce dwell time.
  • Down the road, AVs will carry freight without a driver at all.

What needs to happen

The transition to self-driving fleets will require cooperation by regulators, legislators, utilities, telecommunications companies, insurance companies, etc.

While some states have embraced AVs, there needs to be a consistent set of rules across the country. Regulations on trucker hours need to adapt. A high-power electric charging infrastructure needs to be built and the wireless telecom network must be upgraded.

It won’t happen overnight, but in the long run, AVs will help shipping, trucking and logistics companies lower their operating costs, increase efficiency and improve safety.

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