Automated Trucking: AV Technology is Not Just for Passenger Vehicles

Automated trucking (also referred to as self-driving trucks or autonomous trucking) is a concept that applies the principles of automated passenger vehicles to freight trucks. Automated trucks combine hardware, software, and communication systems to allow trucks to navigate the roadway system with little to no human interaction.

Current Status

Recently, Otto (now owned by Uber) made the first automated truck delivery using public roads in the United States. Previously, Daimler Trucking released a semi-automated truck as a demonstration vehicle displaying technologies for automated freight trucks and tested the truck in various roadway and weather conditions in Nevada. Volvo and Peloton have tested automated trucks as well. Volvo, along with several other European manufacturers, had convoys of semi-automated trucks travel from various countries in Europe to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to test automated truck platooning technology.

These demonstrations indicate that automated trucking technology is developing quickly and may soon be ready for mainstream application. Broad adoption could bring substantial change to the larger transportation and economic system.

Current state-level regulations (in states where testing is allowed) require that a driver be present while the vehicle is in operation, but allow the vehicle to operate without human intervention under many conditions. At the federal level, the recently introduced SELF DRIVE Act would help to clarify regulatory authority over autonomous vehicles. However, the current version of the bill from the House does not include regulatory provisions for automated trucks. Therefore, until the final legislation is passed by both the House and Senate, state-level regulations will prevail.

While there are still technological and safety challenges to be resolved, truck operators are likely to implement automated vehicle technologies for two primary reasons: economics and liability.

Economics

As with many employers, truck operators incur significant expenses related to personnel. While there is a capital investment in the acquisition, operation and maintenance of their vehicles, recurring expenses for salaries and benefits are a major cost factor. Therefore, any strategy that will reduce labor-related costs without compromising safety would be viewed as highly desirable.

Many businesses reduce labor costs by seeking out new (less expensive) labor pools, or by replacing manual labor through automation.  Truck operators are already experiencing a shortage of about 48,000 drivers, with some believing it will grow to 175,000 by 2024, as many existing drivers age and retire.  Strategies typically used to offset labor shortfalls, such as outsourcing or off-shoring, are not as viable for the trucking industry as they are for many others.  Therefore, truck operators may have a greater incentive to pursue automated technologies earlier than other industries.

Many believe that the industry’s initial foray into automated trucking may involve long-distance highway cruising, which may or may not require a driver to be at the wheel, but would require a driver to bring the cargo to its final destination. In the long term, the technology may evolve such that a human driver is completely replaced for all portions of the trip.

Liability Issues

Truck operators often face substantial liability exposure when one of their vehicles is involved in a collision.  Collisions between large vehicles and passenger cars can result in significant property damage, personal injury, and even fatalities.  In 2016, there were over 400,000 collisions involving trucks, of which 82,000 caused injuries and 3,400 caused a fatality.  These fatalities represent more than 10 percent of all fatalities involving any type of vehicle. In collisions involving large trucks, the driver (and occupants) of vehicles other than the truck, such as passenger cars, are more likely to be killed or injured due to the size and weight of the truck.

Trucks present additional challenges compared to automated passenger vehicles due to their large size and weight including less maneuverability, more sight distance limitations, and longer braking distances. This makes avoidance maneuvers more difficult and potentially more dangerous than passenger vehicles.

Automated technologies, like improved sensors, automated braking, blind spot warnings, and other similar innovations, should reduce the instances in which trucks are involved in collisions. The insurance industry has recognized these benefits and one insurance company which specializes in commercial vehicle insurance even developed a briefing paper on the safety-related benefits of automated freight vehicles.

Implications

Potential Benefits

 

Reduced collisions due to added safety features of automated trucks

Reduced delivery costs once labor- and liability-related savings are realized by operators

Reduced traffic congestion on high-volume arterials and freeways (areas where trucks primarily operate) resulting from fewer collisions and potentially greater flexibility to operate trucks outside of peak travel periods

Shorter timeframes for long-haul deliveries as operators would no longer be subject to federal laws limiting hours of operation and requiring rest periods.

Reduced fuel costs (due to truck platooning) and thereby an associated reduction in truck-related emissions

Potential Drawbacks

Reduced demand for highly-skilled truck drivers

Increased demand for more operators licensed differently from “traditional” truck drivers

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Fehr & Peers will continue to devote some of our R&D resources to evaluating emerging technologies such as automated trucking so we can keep our clients informed and help them navigate this rapidly-changing landscape.