An Update on Self-Driving Truck Technology

08/23/2016 — PartnerShip

A little more than a year ago on this blog, we asked the question, “Are Self-Driving Trucks the Future of Shipping?” Recent technology advances and business partnerships have made it clear that yes, self-driving trucks are the future. The question is now, “When is the future?”

Google’s self-driving car project has logged more than 1.5 million miles in autonomous mode with no accidents resulting in major injury or death. The US Army has tested self-driving technology with truck convoys. Uber is road testing a fleet of cars equipped to drive themselves in Pittsburgh. Its competitor, Lyft, is partnering with General Motors to develop self-driving taxis. 

How is self-driving technology going to impact shipping? Google already has a patent for a “package delivery platform” which suggests its technology will be in trucks soon. The US Army wants to deploy self-driving convoys carrying troops and supplies in the next 10 to 15 years. Uber recently purchased a startup company called “Otto,” with the mission to make every truck a self-driving truck. Its goal is self-driving trucks on our highways in as little as two years.  

Self-driving cars have gotten more attention, but self-driving trucks will have a much more substantial impact on the economy. Trucks move nearly 70% of all the freight tonnage in the US and involve 3 million heavy-duty trucks and drivers, using 37 billion gallons of diesel fuel to move 9.2 billion tons of freight over 279 million miles of roadway (American Trucking Associations). The savings potential means trucks may become automated sooner than cars.

The self-driving engineers at Otto believe the commercial trucking world can be automated first and their goal is to have trucks drive themselves on highways, leaving city driving, docking and parking to human drivers. The concept is just like automated pilots that fly jets at high altitudes while leaving the trickier takeoffs and landings to trained human pilots.

The challenges

Self-driving vehicles have several challenges to overcome before they can appear on the roads. First, the technology to make a vehicle autonomous is expensive. Second, consumer trust in fully self-driving vehicle technology is still very low, and third, government regulations are relatively nonexistent, although California recently proposed regulations that stipulate that a fully autonomous vehicle must have a driver in it at all times. 

The benefits

The use of autonomous trucks would overcome many of the stringent “hours of service” regulations in place. Use of self-driving trucks would allow the driver to get rest while the truck drives itself, speeding up deliveries and overall productivity.

Autonomous trucks are more fuel efficient due to computer-controlled acceleration and braking systems that optimize their speed. Conservative estimates predict self-driving trucks consume 10 - 15% less fuel.

Self-driving technology can increase the safety of the driver and the load. A report published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) assigns blame to operator error in 94% of truck accidents. Between 10 and 20% percent of the roughly 4,000 fatal truck accidents are linked to driver fatigue, based on estimates gathered by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, and self-driving trucks never get tired.

The impact to employment

While it might seem like self-driving trucks would result in increased unemployment, that may not be the case. There were more than 48,000 unfilled driver openings last year. If the trend continues, the driver shortage may increase to 150,000 by 2024. The shortage is a result of older drivers retiring, fewer people entering the profession, and increased demand to move freight. Self-driving trucks can fill the gap and could attract more tech-savvy and younger people to become drivers.

Otto is looking for 1,000 volunteers to have self-driving kits installed on their cabs (at no cost, of course) to test and fine-tune the technology. Volunteers are expected to take control of the truck if the technology fails or if driving conditions make it unsafe to remain in autonomous mode. Otto plans to test its equipment on volunteers’ trucks for the next 12 to 18 months.

Whenever self-driving trucks become viable, PartnerShip will be here to help you focus on your business by managing the complicated parts of shipping. To stay competitive, ship smarter with PartnerShip! Contact us at 800-599-2902 or get a quote now!


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