In early April, a monumental event occurred in Europe. Twelve semi-automated trucks, in 6 convoys, arrived at the port of Rotterdam. These tractor trailers drove autonomously over the European highways, utilizing their drivers only on city roads. Similar, smaller scale tests have occurred in the US. Autonomous vehicles will provide substantial relief for driver shortages, and hours of service issues. However, ultimately it also places the jobs of over one million truck drivers at risk.
Autonomous vehicles offer many opportunities and challenges. Over the road drivers earn between $0.28 to $0.45 per mile. Depending on the length of haul, utilization of driverless vehicles will impact 27%-34% of the carrier’s costs.
There are other productivity improvements as well. Driverless vehicles are not subject to Hours of Service requirements. Therefore they may operate around the clock, picking up extra hours and miles every day. Long distance points become closer together, further shrinking the supply chain.
They also offer fuel productivity gains. They will drive at consistent speeds, to optimize engine performance. Traveling in convoys, the trailing vehicles are able to benefit from the draft of the trucks ahead of it, generating further fuel savings
Autonomous trucks should have a better safety record, eliminating many accidents, injuries, and traffic delays
There are many challenges yet to overcome. It will be some time before they are suitable for city driving. Therefore, marshaling yards will be needed to take them to and from their urban destinations. There are many technological hurdles in complying with state and national regulations, weather, traffic, fueling, and security among others. None of these are insurmountable. However, they will take several years to resolve. The good news is that autonomous trucks are coming.