Why Trucks Will Uncouple from Human Drivers Sooner than You Think
The driverless truck is no longer a fanciful idea that will materialize in some future world. The technology has advanced rapidly over recent years, and I believe that we’ll see these automated vehicles on our highways in the near future. Here’s why.
When demand for a product or service outstrips supply, new technology often bridges the gap. For example, in the early days of the national phone system, the only way that the demand for capacity could be met was to phase out human operators and automate calls by adding dials to phones. Today, a shortage of human drivers is a major constraint on trucking. Automating the driver role solves this problem and creates more capacity.
In addition, driverless trucks are not subject to hours of service regulations and are more efficient operationally. Automated vehicles can move closer together at higher speeds and maneuver more precisely. The result is improved truck utilization and more opportunities to take inventory out of supply chains.
It can be argued that a sound business case is not enough; that the concept has to win over a highly skeptical public before it can move out of the trial phase. This is true, but the public’s lack of trust can be overcome.
There are plenty of precedents to draw on. Commercial aircrafts routinely run on autopilot and, in some cases, can even land with minimum human intervention. Robotic vehicles are in use in closed commercial environments, such as warehouses. Importantly, cars are becoming more automated, and with each new feature, people become more familiar with the technology and less fearful. Mercedes-Benz is selling a car that will drive itself in stop-and-go traffic, for instance.
Meantime, driverless trucks have the support of a number of stakeholder groups outside of the business community. The baby boomer generation is fiercely independent—especially when it comes to mobility. Owning an automated car that obviates the need to drive as they get older is a powerful way for baby boomers to preserve their independence. Governments encourage this thinking because enabling seniors to be self-sufficient lessens the need to provide specialized care outside of the home. Environmentalists favor the green benefits of more efficient trucking (drafting, using the lead vehicle’s slipstream to improve energy efficiency, can achieve gains of as much as 17%). Improving the utilization of road networks reduces the pressure to build new infrastructure, an outcome that should please anti-tax lobbyists who resist the levying of higher taxes to pay for road building projects.
At the same time, truck automation technology continues to develop apace. We’ve come a long way since the concept first began to move off the drawing board, and over the next few years there are sure to be more refinements that will make the concept more viable.
Also keep in mind that driverless trucks will not suddenly appear; the ramp up to their introduction will be measured, giving the public plenty of time to adjust. Initially, we might see a hybrid solution called platooning where one truck driven by a human controls a convoy of driverless vehicles.
Of course, there will be speed bumps along the way, and the technology is not without its drawbacks. For example, some disruptions—notably weather-related delays—are likely to be fewer but more severe because even the most sophisticated automation lacks the flexibility and ingenuity of a human driver. Imagine an automated truck’s failsafe system shutting down the rig on the side of a highway in response to a sudden storm. And even a single accident involving a driverless vehicle could put a brake on the concept.
However, the road to innovation is seldom smooth, and for the reasons described above, I’m confident that the driverless truck has the inertia to become a reality sooner rather than later.