Society at large will also reap benefits. If truck driving shifted to off-peak periods, which is a viable option in a driverless vehicle, highways would be less congested. They would also become safer as the accidents involving trucks were reduced by eliminating human error.
Costs and Compromises
Autonomous vehicle technology offers advantages across the trucking industry value chain. However, the pace and extent of eventual adoption will depend to a large degree on the ability of stakeholders—whether they’re shippers such as Con-Way and Allied or manufacturers such as Freightliner and Mack—to resolve a range of technical, practical, political, and social concerns.
On the technical front, driverless trucks could reach commercial viability within a decade, as the manufacturers of their supporting technology components ramp up production and prices, in turn, fall as the industry moves down the cost curve.
These components are still prohibitively expensive today; for example, the 600-rpm spinning light-imaging radar system that crowns most current autonomous vehicles costs upward of $70,000. And ALHT supporters must answer such difficult questions as how to refuel driverless trucks and protect their cargo when trucks break down. Fuel retailers, repair companies, highway patrol, and insurers, among others, will all play a role in finding the solution.
It’s worth noting that for truck manufacturers and incumbent suppliers, the impact of autonomous trucks will be mixed. Many will capitalize on new opportunities to supply billions of dollars of autonomous trucking equipment. But they’ll also see orders plunge for cockpit gear such as steering wheels and other components that won’t be needed if software replaces drivers. More importantly, if existing trucks can be retrofitted as autonomous vehicles, the current national fleet could find itself 30 percent over capacity, because of the efficiency gains that can be extracted from existing vehicles.
ALHTs will also face legal obstacles: Legislation allowing driverless vehicles to operate will be needed across the country. California, Florida, and Nevada have already enacted rules allowing testing of driverless vehicles. But a patchwork of varying state standards would create a difficult environment, which suggests a need for uniform federal rules of the road. To that effect, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is working on national standards, due in 2013 for cars and 2014 for heavy vehicles. In addition, autonomous vehicle technology will have to overcome resistance from a public frightened by the specter of unmanned trucks hurtling down highways.
Finally, as we’ve seen with automation in other industries, such as manufacturing, the use of driverless trucks is likely to face opposition from unions and their political allies as they are faced with the elimination of hundreds of thousands of truck driving jobs.
The Road to Opportunity
There are several different scenarios for how the adoption of autonomous trucking could unfold. One is that driverless trucks appear first in large industrial environments, where they can be contained (just like the computer-driven trucks already navigating mine sites). As with machines in the early days of factory automation, these trucks would have limited range and capabilities. But just as robots became indispensable to moving parts and goods around plants, autonomous trucks could expand to more open areas and longer distances as the technology is refined and proven. We may also see partial adoption. For example, some companies may opt for “remote-control trucking,” in which a driver pilots a truck hundreds of miles away through a complex environment of local roads until the truck gets onto the highway. At that point, a more basic, less expensive autonomous system designed for the relatively simple environment of highway driving would take over. This could be a palatable option for legislators and the public.