There are an estimated 15.5 million trucks that currently operate in the United States. Among them, about 2 million are semis/tractor-trailers that transport a large number of goods across the country. Recent improvements in technology, such as automation and AI, have helped carriers move freight more efficiently while reducing long-term costs. As both the number of trucks and drivers is expected to grow in the coming years, there will continue to be pressure on operators to expand their networks.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has certainly disrupted demand for certain goods and services, it has also greatly accelerated the adoption of new mobile, digital, and automation technologies within the industry. These capabilities have been an excellent resource for fleet operators as they are working with minimal person-to-person contact and enhanced safety protocols.
One big question on the minds of fleet managers is what the transition to self-driving semi trucks will look in the near future. Also referred to as autonomous vehicles (AVs), self-driving trucks are already being road-tested by a number of truck manufacturers and their logistics partners. In this post, we’ll take a look at four important reasons why now may be the perfect time to begin investing in these technologies.
1. The Technology is Feasible
Major truck manufacturers, such as Daimler and Peterbilt, have been making great strides in the development of self-driving semi trucks. There have also been new models announced from entrants to the market such as Ike and Tesla. While fully autonomous trucks might be a decade or two from being widely adopted, semi-autonomous capabilities have already been proven as feasible.
Technologies such as electronic stability control (ESC), collision avoidance, and various electronic sensors can all be used for semi-autonomous operation with increasing reliability. These features help make driving more convenient for the operators and help reduce safety incidents on the roadways. The agriculture, mining, and defense industries are already using AVs in a number of different areas. For the trucking industry, many experts are discussing the use of self-driving trucks when platooning, where a lead truck guides several others in a chain on the roadway, a concept that can also be used in standard, driver-operated trucking fleets. These capabilities may be worth considering as a means of greater efficiency for fleets of any size.
2. A Clear Trend Toward Digital Solutions
Especially since the Electronic Logging Device (ELD) mandate went into full effect in 2018, there has been incredible momentum in the trucking industry to adopt digital solutions. This trend has truly pushed fleet management into a new phase of modernization. Many technologies such as GPS, dashboard and vehicle cameras, and artificial intelligence (AI) have all become widely used in trucks throughout the country. Now that operators are able to connect to their drivers and fleets in new ways, it has really opened the door to new automated and semi-automated features.
3. Commercial Demand
Some reports have highlighted a potential shortage of truck drivers, signaling a potential challenge for operators in meeting the growing demand for logistics services. Self-driving semis can help supplement existing fleets and provide coverage for routine routes that are easier to control without an in-vehicle operator.
Some examples include short-distance hauls, travel through low-speed zones, and truck movements near warehouse docks and parking lots. Self-driving forklifts and lift trucks are already being used to speed loading and unloading processes at warehouse loading docks, so self-driving trucks are a logical next step in an industry that’s been moving towards automation for several years. Self-driving trucks present a potential opportunity to automate some of these tedious and routine operations and extract more value out of your entire fleet.
4. Potential Business Benefits
Looking at the potential benefits of self-driving semi trucks is a great way to prioritize any potential investments. Increasing route efficiency for your existing drivers can help reduce the need for overtime and allow them to focus on more value-added work. You may also realize lower maintenance costs and improved safety due to the greater detection and awareness enabled by self-driving technologies. Over time, automating parts of your fleet can also lead to greater fuel efficiency that could have a dramatic impact on your bottom line. In many ways, the use of self-driving trucks can further expand many of the benefits you may already be realizing with new digital devices and software platforms.
Regardless of your long-term goals as a fleet operator, it is likely that nearly all companies will eventually move to adopt truck automation capabilities. Looking at semi-autonomous technologies and AVs for low speed or highly routine routes is a reasonable first step. This step could be followed by creating a platooning group leveraging self-driving trucks, eventually moving to highway travel, and then complete self-driving long-haul routes. It will certainly take several decades to fully realize the vision of self-driving semi fleets, but the first steps toward implementing these capabilities are already here and could be a profitable investment for your company.