Driverless trucks will be the trains of the 21st century.
In 1869, the final “golden” spike was driven into the railroad that connected the U.S. It was an extremely difficult process, with lives lost, but the economic and convenience gains were too overwhelming for industry to pass up. Long story short, it got done.
A century and a half later, we have the technology to send a truck cross country without a driver. Obstacles exist, but the economic incentives are so staggering that driverless trucks are going to enter the industry. It’s more a question of when and to what extent than if.
As it happens, it is up to our industry to be mindful of drivers, who will be in danger of being displaced or suffering pay cuts. That subject deserves its own article.
Here are 7 reasons driverless trucks seem inevitable:
#1: PROFIT EXPLOSION
For carriers, driverless trucks will both cut costs (no driver pay) AND increase revenue (trucks don’t need to rest).
Drivers can drive 11 hours before having to rest 10 hours by federal law. Driverless trucks could keep driving, so they could do a round trip in roughly the same time it takes a driver to go one way.
Driver pay varies but let’s ballpark it at $1000 and customer price at $4000 for a week-long coast-to-coast truckload and assume a 15% profit margin:
$3200 profit vs. $600 profit is a whopping 433% profit increase.
Multiply $2600 extra profit over 52 weeks and you have an annual profit increase of $135,200 per truck.
The analysis above isn’t perfect – the figures are rough estimates that do not adjust for wear and tear on trucks etc – but the expected profit increase is going to be staggering enough for carriers to make driverless trucks happen. Where there is money to be had, you will find motivated businesspeople chasing it.
#2: TRANSIT-TIME REDUCTIONS
2-day transit will become next day, and so on. Driverless trucks could drive more or less all day and night, delivering freight more quickly.
#3: AGING DRIVER POPULATION
Millenials don’t want to drive trucks – presumably because there's no app for it...yet – and the average driver age continues to rise. Retiring drivers are not easily replaced.
Some tech has been added to many trucks, to make driving safer and less taxing. It is possible that these efforts will increase the driver pool, but it’s hard to see millenials flocking to the occupation in large numbers.
#4: FEWER DEATHS
This one is extremely important, for obvious reasons.
Thousands of people die each year in U.S. truck accidents.
Right now, the fear of jeopardizing safety is a chief impediment to driverless trucks. Once that pendulum swings, and driverless technology is seen as improving safety, saving lives, things could happen very fast. The main obstacle would suddenly become a powerful incentive, turning the political tide, opening the flood gates.
Even if new roads or lanes of traffic have to be built, that doesn’t seem like an insurmountable task. We built railroads with 1800s technology. We can build new roads or add traffic lanes if we need to. The sought-after profit explosion will push things along.
#5: PRIVATE FLEETS, LOW-COST RETAILERS
Retailers like Walmart and Amazon are always looking for ways to improve supply-chain efficiency. Driverless trucks would mean faster deliveries at a lower cost, and these giants have the capital to make the initial investment.
Amazon has publicized its experiments with drones for final-mile delivery. Driverless trucks fit the same efficiency-driven mold.
#6: IT’S GREEN
Convoys of driverless trucks reduce wind resistance and the amount of fuel used.
#7: STEP-BY-STEP PROGRESS IS DOABLE
Even if a driver navigates cities, taking trucks onto highways and off again, the huge benefits in between are enough to get the ball rolling and ease people's fears. Technology can address each leg of the journey in steps without losing enough economic incentive to defeat the process.
It won’t happen all at once, but we might be closer than you think to seeing driverless trucks on our roads. Powerful financial incentives will push the technology along. Safety will eventually swing from obstacle to incentive, opening up the flood gates.
Let’s just make sure we don’t leave drivers out in the cold. We already take these men and women for granted. They do an arduous, dangerous job that is critical to the rest of us getting our products when we want them for an affordable price. They deserve our respect and a soft landing if and when driverless trucks become the norm.
We would love to hear your comments, whether shared with the community or by email ([email protected]).
Until next time, Happy Trucking!