In the logistics and supply chain industry, self-driving or autonomous trucks and the ever-present truck driver shortage are hot-button topics. While the pros and cons of each are discussed ad nauseam, the truth is that the successful implantation of autonomous trucks can resolve the growing shortage of qualified drivers. However, since we’re a long way from the actual integration of completely self-driving trucks – the question that must be asked is if there is a happy medium?
Noted below, we’ll outline a few realistic ways that transportation companies can begin to integrate autonomous commercial transportation – while helping to train existing drivers and attract new talent, which can help improve the overall efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the supply chain.
Self-driving trucks are getting closer to becoming a reality – but it’s still a long road to travel until it becomes a reality. Although technology is rapidly resolving the major hurdles and objectives, the truth is that there are three main issues that autonomous trucks still face:
• Safety: The technology, sensors, and AI computer technology that permits machinery to operate autonomously makes them exceptionally safe. They are programmed to recognize obstructions in the road, including other cars, pedestrians, and even adapt to different road conditions. However, recent accidents involving motorists and pedestrians in real-world testing have caused a significant debate about the practical safety of these self-operating trucks.
• Cost of Integration: Another hurdle to autonomous trucks becoming a reality is the cost of integrating them into a transportation fleet. Initially, the cost of each truck was expected to reach $150,000 to $200,000. However, as the testing evolved, engineers realized that frequent computer updates and excessive routine maintenance to sensors and support systems were dramatically raising the cost of operation.
• Regulations: The trucking industry is plagued with rising federal regulations that also impact the integration of self-driving vehicles. While current laws on the books including the ELD mandate are focused on recording driver hours of service, there are also questions about how autonomous vehicles will impact employee right-to-work (such as reducing the need for truck drivers).
Each of these three objections is being addressed through more research, testing, and development. While self-driving vehicles continue to evolve, the reality of full-integration is still quite a while away. This raises the question of how a transportation company can expedite the integration of autonomous trucks. Let’s discuss a few possible ideas.
If you look at most consumer cars, trucks, and SUV’s, you’ll see multiple vehicles with several driver-assisted technology features that are designed for improved safety along with helping with routine driving tasks. A great example of this technology is the semi-autonomous vehicles (that are operated by an experienced driver) used with Waymo and Uber. The vehicle is programmed to navigate city roads, drive by itself, but with a human occupant to take over in emergency situations.
A great way to integrate self-driving technology into commercial applications is to utilize the same technology with over-the-road trucks. Doing so can allow existing truck drivers to learn how to operate these vehicles, which might inspire some drivers to continue as technology advances.
Since operational costs, routine service and maintenance, and other expenses are a hurdle, finding a way to integrate them on a gr7adual basis can help transportation reduce the initial investment. Some organizations including UPS, Fed Ex, and DHL have already begun to slowly introduce the semi-autonomous concept at freight loading facilities, hubs, and depots. Making the next logical step to on-road transportation equipment, operated by a professional driver for safety, simply makes sense.
A major objective that autonomous transportation vehicles face is removing the human element from behind the wheel. It’s estimated by the US Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that 94-percent of commercial traffic fatalities involved a human decision. It’s also a statement of fact that these two organizations are looking to improve technology to reduce the human factor in driving across the board. However, completely removing the human occupant from commercial driving is sparking too many concerns.
Perhaps the best idea is to shelf the full self-driving vehicle until technology and supporting infrastructure is in place to activate it correctly. By slowly integrating semi-autonomous commercial trucks into the supply chain, trucking companies can learn as they go, reduce the cost of initial investment, and help train new drivers that would be attracted to this type of new technology.