Three things to know now about autonomous trucking

Drivers, Our People, Technology and Innovation

Our President and CEO Eric Fuller recently spoke at Manifest about autonomous vehicles and infrastructure realities.

What’s happening: Thousands of global leaders from across the supply chain and logistics landscape gathered for the Manifest event in Las Vegas in February. With a focus on industry innovation and transformation, presenters ran the gamut from retail giants and shipping stalwarts to high-profile startups in the autonomous and electric vehicle space. 

Why it matters: As part of a panel at the event, U.S. Xpress President and CEO Eric Fuller discussed the timelines for broad adoption of autonomous trucks, the hurdles around large scale integration, and some misconceptions about this promising technology.

The bottom line: Autonomous trucks are on the way, but the development of related infrastructure will be critical to realizing the greatest benefit.

Economic pressures may have dampened expectations for when autonomous trucks will become widely available, but they’re still inevitable as long as related infrastructure investments keep pace, U.S. Xpress President and CEO Eric Fuller said during a recent industry panel.

The panel featured Eric; Graham Doorley, the CEO of Terraline; and Brett Suma, CEO of Loadsmith. Here are three things to know now about the future of autonomous trucking, according to these industry experts:

1. Autonomous trucks are still on the way, though progress may be a little slower.

Predicting when autonomous trucks will be on the road at scale has always been a dicey proposition, and the last couple of years have further changed the landscape, Eric said. 

“Five or six years ago, everyone felt like it was 10 or 15 years away, then you go back a year or two ago and it was three or four years away — a lot of the autonomous companies were talking about 2024 or 2025,” Eric said.

But the bumpy economic environment has made it harder to raise capital for the development of the technology, and there’s been a fair amount of disruption in the market in the last year, he added.   

“I think we’re probably going to see autonomous trucks maybe a little later than we had anticipated a year or two ago,” Eric said.

Expectations are a little less aggressive for couple of reasons, he added. Access to capital is one, but there is also a somewhat narrower view of the potential of autonomous trucks.

Long-haul autonomy has the most near-term potential, Graham said.

“We feel pretty strongly that you’ll see dedicated long-haul autonomy in the near future,” he said. “It’s really quite advanced.”

While the challenges of the economy may slow the progress of autonomous trucking in the near term, it’s an inevitable technology, Brett said. 

“I don’t think it stops, because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “Some players may exit, you may see some mergers, but I don’t think we’ll see much of a delay. We’re too far down the road doing the right things.”

The keys to broad adoption, however, are the same factors that shippers weigh now in awarding business, Eric said. 

“It’s service and it’s cost,” he said. “If they think it will provide better service and lower cost, they’re all in.”

Those savings may take a little while to materialize, and until then, many shippers will be cautious, Eric said.

2. Autonomous trucks aren’t going to put professional drivers out of work.

Some professional drivers may be concerned about autonomous trucks replacing them, but many are interested in the potential of the technology to improve their quality of life, Brett said. And professional drivers are not strangers to evolving technology, he added.

“When I got into trucking, I handed drivers their paychecks. I’m sure Eric remembers dispatching trucks over the phone,” Brett said. “Drivers are not tech-averse.”

There won’t be a reduction in the number of truck driving jobs in the next 25 to 30 years, Eric said.

“I think that autonomous will happen, but there are four million truck drivers, and truck tonnage grows from 2-3% on an annualized basis. If you start to see autonomous trucks and run that out 10 years with 400,000 trucks, with that tonnage growth you still need about 900,000 more truck drivers,” he said. “If those 400,000 trucks can run double what a driver can run, you still are not covering the need.”

Jobs that support long-haul autonomy will be critical, Brett added.

“Autonomous is a catalyst for tremendous growth in really good first mile and last mile jobs,” he said.  

Graham added that professional drivers will be an important part of the autonomous equation. “The autonomous systems will need drivers to be involved on a fundamental level for a very long time,” he said. “We will need that for decades.”

Rather than replacing people, autonomous trucks will create a shift in the labor force, creating new and different roles that require professional drivers, Eric said.

“I don’t see any point in our lifetimes that there are no truck drivers and it’s all autonomous,” he said. “I think we have to have autonomous because it’s one way to meet the demands.”

3. The infrastructure around autonomous trucks will be as important as the trucks themselves.

One of the biggest hurdles to broad deployment of autonomous trucks is the need for new infrastructure around those processes, Brett said.

The potential savings from increased mileage and decreased insurance costs could be eaten up by drayage costs, he said. Trailer pools and optimization tools will be critical to making the entire freight process work, he said.

“There’s a lot more to it than to say, ‘Autonomous exists and let’s deploy it,'” Brett said.

Building strong systems and networks around autonomous trucks will be crucial to making the most of the technology, Eric said.

It’s currently possible to run Phoenix to Miami as an autonomous route, but a patchwork of state regulations makes it tough to get consistent adoption, he said. The South and West are likeliest to lead the way in terms of adoption, Eric added.  

Meanwhile, the production of electric trucks will mean better experiences for drivers, Graham added. “We’re building a truck that’s better for the driver.” he said. “There are a lot of advantages going to electric for comfort, accessibility, and usability.”

There are challenges, though, to widespread adoption of electric trucks, he said.

“To haul 80,000 pounds around you need a lot of energy, a very large battery system,” Graham said.

The work is not just building the truck, but building the power source, the charging systems, and developing a multi-pronged approach to making electric trucks viable at scale.

“This is why we’re doing a ground-up design and building a truck around a battery system.”  

Watch the entire panel discussion here.

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