Self-driven vehicles, also called autonomous or driverless vehicles, are widely believed to be the future of transport. In the not so distant future, you may be able to relax and read a book while your car drives you to work. The global autonomous vehicle market was projected to grow to a $550 billion industry by 2026. And everyone wants a piece of this pie. The last decade has seen major investments and developments by car manufacturers, tech giants, and even startups. Tesla, BMW, Ford, Volvo, Apple, Google, and Waymo have all done hours of testing and expect to have driverless cars on the road in the next five years.
Self-driving trucks generate a lot of excitement in the logistics and trucking industries. Many believe they will help fleet owners increase productivity, improve fuel efficiency, and reduce operational and labor costs. But some fear the advent of autonomous trucks may render millions of truck drivers jobless.
In December 2019, a self-driven commercial freight truck travelled 2,800 miles across the US to deliver butter. This was the world's first delivery done by an autonomous truck from end to end. But then, in March 2020, one of the pioneering companies in the autonomous trucking space, Starsky Robotics, had shut down. So what's really going on? How soon can we expect autonomous trucks whizzing along on our roads?
This article looks at these questions and discusses how these changes may affect truck drivers.
Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of headlines lately. The last 3-5 years have seen a lot of hype about them. Governments, venture capital firms, and automobile manufacturers have all poured billions of dollars into research and development of autonomous vehicles. We were promised thousands of autonomous cars on our roads by 2020-2021. But it is now 2020, and a harsh reality has hit the industry: carmakers and tech startups now realize that building autonomous vehicles is harder, slower, and costlier than they thought.
However, many industry experts now believe that we may see self-driving trucks before we see self-driving cars. A self-driven truck company has to train their artificial intelligence (AI) to drive on highways for long distances. Trucks spend a lot more time than cars do on highways, whereas cars spend more time than trucks do on local streets. It's easier to train AI models for highway environments, which consist of miles of straight roads and are thus relatively predictable, than to train models for city streets, which can present unexpected challenges at any moment. The other reason we may see self-driving trucks sooner is basic economics. Self-driving technology is currently very expensive. This means personal self-driving cars may be prohibitively costly for most individuals. But despite similarly high costs for autonomous trucks, fleet managers expect large operating cost savings due to increased efficiencies.
According to McKinsey Center for Future Mobility, autonomous trucks will roll out in four separate phases. These phases will differ in how much autonomy the trucks actually have. The first two phases will employ platooning, a technique that enables a convoy of trucks to closely follow a lead truck on a highway. The first phase will most likely still need a driver in every truck. The platoons will be driven autonomously on the highways, but the driver will manually drive on all smaller roads. By the second phase, the technology will have evolved enough to have a driver only in the lead truck, with a convoy of unmanned self-driving trucks following closely behind the lead. At this stage, fleet operators could reduce their costs by 10%. We can expect these developments by 2025.
The next leap in the progression of autonomous trucks will see even lead trucks driving completely unmanned on highways. According to McKinsey, this will happen no sooner than 2027. Other experts believe it might even take till 2030 to reach that level of automation. In this third stage, trucks would have constrained autonomy, meaning that they would still require human drivers to navigate through city streets and at loading docks. Still, this can produce savings of about 20% for fleet owners. It will take truck manufacturing and technology companies at least till 2030 to put completely autonomous trucks on the roads at scale (the fourth phase). Such completely driverless supply chain systems may reduce the cost of fleet ownership by up to 45%.
But what does all of this mean for the jobs of truck drivers?
Truck drivers are a vital cog in the US economic machine. Trucks move about 70% of all freight in the US. According to the American Trucking Associations, there are 3.5 million professional truck drivers in the US. In fact, truck driving is the primary occupation in more than half of all US states! This is partly because truck driving jobs have been immune to two major factors that affect many other jobs—automation and offshoring. Thus, the impact of the inevitable dawn of autonomous trucking on driver jobs should be a topic of major concern.
Most reports by top consulting firms have grim predictions. The International Transport Forum predicts that demand for truck drivers will reduce by 50-70% in the US and in Europe combined by 2030, displacing up to 4.4 million truck drivers. A report by Goldman Sachs has equally disheartening projections. They predict driver job losses at a rate of 25,000 a month, or 300,000 a year, beginning in 2042, when they project an enormous increase in autonomous vehicles on the road.
However, for reasons discussed in the next section, front-line workers in the trucking industry (e.g., drivers) and engineers working on automation technology do not believe that self-driving trucks will make drivers obsolete.
Most major players working on self-driving trucks fully intend to have drivers in the trucks at all times. To understand why, you need to understand the different levels of automation in self-driving vehicles. Most experts think in terms of five levels, ranging from level 0, with no automation, to level 5, with full automation. Most self-driving trucks currently in development fall under level 2 or level 3. These autonomous trucks will thus be, in reality, semi-autonomous.
They will be self-driven on the highways where traffic and driving conditions are more consistent and predictable. It's easier for developers to train the algorithms for those driving situations. Human drivers will take over when routes pass through congested urban areas. We will still need human truck drivers for first-mile pickups and last-mile deliveries in chaotic urban environments. Navigating any self-driven vehicle through an environment full of people, pets, bicycles, vehicles, and other obstacles is considerably more complicated than highway driving. Moreover, even during autonomous runs on highways, there are multiple unpredictable issues that may come up that require human attention.
The other major point to keep in mind is that truckers do much more than just drive. Their jobs require a variety of skills that cannot be automated (yet). For example, truck drivers load, unload, and secure their cargo. They also maintain paperwork, do basic customer service and perform urgent repairs. An autonomous truck may detect a flat tire, but will still need a human to change it.
Hence, the only major change will be that drivers will do less manual driving. The job of a truck driver will become more like an airplane pilot. Airplanes are extremely autonomous, but we still have highly trained pilots to make sure everything runs perfectly, especially for takeoffs and landings. And we feel much safer knowing there is a human in the cockpit just in case they're needed. Autonomous trucks will provide a less stressful work environment for truckers. Currently, truck drivers spend almost 12 hours a day on the road, maintaining intense focus every second. It is mentally and physically taxing. But with autonomous trucking, they can be a bit more relaxed during long stretches of highway travel.
Autonomous trucks promise a ton of benefits for fleet owners. However, there are still a few years till they become common on our roads, in 2025-2027. And even when that happens, they will most likely self-drive only on highways, and not in urban areas. Thus, they may not make truck drivers obsolete and jobless. In fact, they will complement drivers' abilities and make their lives a bit easier.
This post was written by Aditya Khanduri. Aditya currently handles product and growth at Cryptio.co, and he's also built a couple of B2B products. He's proficient in data analysis with Python and has worked with multiple startups in the blockchain and artificial intelligence sector.