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 / Summer 2013 / Issue 71(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Next Autonomous Car Is a Truck

The obstacles to adoption are significant, but driverless technology now in development could transform long-haul trucking.

Each year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. spends hundreds of millions of dollars delivering its merchandise across the United States. The 6,000 trucks in the retailer’s fleet are a common sight on highways, as are those of the many other companies that rely on long-haul trucking to transport their goods from coast to coast. But what if that fleet could be cut by one-third—and be made up of trucks pulled by slimmed-down tractors less than half their current size, with a computer at the helm?

It may be hard to imagine: trucks guided by GPS, radar, sensors, and software, hauling much of the nation’s cargo. Yet autonomous vehicle technology has made headlines for years, and experimental autonomous cars are already on the roads today. Google’s driverless cars have logged more than 300,000 miles on California and Nevada highways since 2011. That same year, Chinese carmaker FAW unveiled its own autonomous car, which it demonstrated on public roads. Toyota and Audi exhibited their versions of the technology at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 2013.

The use of autonomous vehicle technology in trucks, however, is more of a glimmer. There have been some developments to date, for example, computer-guided trucks that transport ore around mine sites. Yet, in these and other closed-loop transportation ecosystems, it is easy to maintain control and address issues as they arise. The appearance of driverless trucks on a congested highway poses many more challenges and will face technical, practical, social, and political hurdles. But despite these significant obstacles, this vision is worth exploring. The use of autonomous long-haul trucks (ALHTs) could add up to a multibillion-dollar opportunity for companies throughout the trucking value chain, and in turn, lower prices for consumers. Although the transformation is still years away, companies should start preparing for an automated future today.

A Technology-Powered Vision

ALHTs will have all the fundamental mechanics of the trucks we see today, but they will be guided by a suite of sensors acting together to paint a digital picture of the road for a computer positioned where the driver now sits. These sensors will provide the data to support an operating system that one might compare to the most capable autopilots in commercial airliners, able to take off and land without human intervention. Similarly, the operating system in driverless trucks will evaluate the road and surrounding obstacles, such as cars, trees, or people, hundreds of times a second, and will decide the best path on which to proceed to its final destination.

These new technologies won’t come cheap. It is hard to put an exact cost figure together, given that much of the technology is still in the pre–mass production stage. But the total cost of outfitting a truck with equipment and software could be as much as US$200,000. And although savings will vary from firm to firm, they could exceed $100,000 per truck annually. Over several years, the gains would far outstrip the initial investment and the maintenance costs. A significant portion of both the cost savings and the efficiency gains would come from eliminating drivers’ wages from the bottom line.

Diesel fuel costs would fall, too—as long as other factors, such as oil prices, hold constant—because the technology reduces consumption by optimizing acceleration and braking. The Center for Automotive Research estimates that driverless trucks would increase fuel efficiency by 15 to 20 percent. Accident-related expenses and insurance premiums also could decline, because automated trucks would be programmed for maximum safety, eliminating the driver errors that cause most crashes.

Along with the savings would come significant productivity improvements. Currently, restrictions on the number of consecutive hours a driver can stay on the road limit asset utilization. But the software controlling driverless trucks never gets drowsy, and that opens the door to round-the-clock operations. Higher asset utilization rates would reduce the need for capital spending on additional trucks. Retailers, distributors, and manufacturers that ship goods by truck will see additional benefits as competition among trucking companies converts the efficiencies of ALHTs into lower shipping rates. Retailers, in turn, could pass those savings along to consumers. The one-day delivery radius could also expand, enabling businesses to offer overnight ground shipping to more customers.

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