The advancement of technology aims to do one thing: make our lives more efficient. Science has helped eliminate errors and vastly increase production speeds in countless industries. As it turns out, the trucking field could be the next to see big changes in the name of progress.
Inventions on the Horizon
Plenty of people have heard about the driverless car. Companies like Google, Uber, and Tesla are part of the race for a functioning consumer version. Experts say, however, that big rigs could be on the road long before we see people leaping into cars with auto-pilot. In fact, they’re already here.
On May 6, 2015, Daimler unveiled the first self-driving truck. This creation was developed to use the power of ordinary radar and cameras to gauge and maintain its position on the road and keep everything running smoothly. Since then, it’s been through miles and miles of testing without incident. Companies across the nation are placing money and trust into these kinds of developments, hoping to be among the first to deploy such fleets. So why will businesses be making such big changes? Simple: money.
The Savings of Driverless Trucking
Across the industry, there’s an estimated $168 billion that could be saved annually by switching to automated trucking. Labor alone accounts for $70 billion of that number, eliminating the average driver’s salary of $40,000.
What’s more, automated trucks don’t have to rest. Drivers are legally restricted to 11 hours behind the wheel per day, but a truck that runs on its own never has to stop. There are no food or bathroom breaks required, and many of them would be operating for a full 24 hours.
Cutting Fuel Costs
There are many other numbers to consider too. Inconsistencies like driving too fast, for example, cost tons of extra fuel. Most employees are paid by the mile, so they naturally want to complete their hauls as quickly as they can. From a fuel efficiency standpoint, the best speed for one of these vehicles is around 45mph.
Fleet drafting is another concept to cut back on costs. This is when several trucks run together at a set distance apart. The reduced drag between them affects every vehicle in the line. It’s easy to see why switching out a pilot for a computer is expected to save $35 billion in fuel.
Other Savings From Automation
Insurance costs could likely see a big drop for companies with automated trucks. More than 110,000 people are injured in accidents involving large trucks—and nearly 4,000 more are killed. 90% of these are at least partially attributed to driver error. Even aside from the direct savings in repairs, thousands of lives would be saved by making this move. Put that on top of health insurance and training costs, and the change is easy to understand.
What the Future Holds for Drivers
There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, making it the second most popular profession across the country. In fact, it is the leading job in 29 states. Beyond that, there are 5.2 million other occupations directly tied to the trucking industry, such as freight loaders. Is it really possible that some computerized trucks could upend that many people? Only time will tell.
What we do know is that the immediate future for truck driving jobs is quite bright. Companies are having a harder time finding willing employees, so the salary is creeping higher. This is on top of the fact that there are about 30,000 fewer drivers than the country actually needs.
Experts say that the trucking industry will expand by about 21% before 2020. The shortfall will grow too, reaching around 100,000 vacant positions in the same year. So how long will this last until the automated trucks begin to have an effect? Daimler stated that the new trucks will be tested for more than a decade and through more than a million miles. They’ll only be put into real-life situations once they’ve proven themselves thoroughly. Even then, there are many legal issues to face.
As of 2016, it’s against the law to operate a full autonomous vehicle. Companies like Tesla are going around such regulations by restricting the features of the car. Instead of taking care of every aspect of driving, these vehicles focus on lane deviation and maintaining consistent speed. Could these laws change? Of course. But any big shifts are a long way away.
Perhaps 2030 will show us a middle ground: automated trucks with drivers still riding within for backup and emergency situations. Maybe they’ll never become commonplace at all, and the traditional driver will become more valuable. Whatever the future holds, trucking is always going to be there—and it’s going to be a big part of the discussion.