Every day, a truck moves 150 pounds of goods per American, according to CNBC, and trucks make up 70% of all freight volume.
But the large industry is plagued with a major problem: There aren’t enough truck drivers to meet the growing demand for deliveries. At I.CON West 2019, attendees heard from some of the leaders in the autonomous trucking and logistics space about the challenges and innovative solutions they see for the industry.
“I know major carriers who have had to pass on 10,000 loads per month because they don’t have drivers to drive their loads,” said Ross Froat, director of engineering & IT at the American Trucking Association.
According to a 2017 report from the American Trucking Association, the industry needs to hire nearly 900,000 new drivers over the next decade, 28% of which will be needed to account for anticipated industry growth and demand for ultra-fast delivery.
To help address this problem, several companies are developing trucks with different degrees of automation ranging from a “hands-off” driver who still sits in a truck cab to those that don’t require a human driver at all.
“We first got involved in the industry in the context of the driver shortage. It’s something we feel as a very real pain point on a day-to-day level in working to hire and retain over-the-road truck drivers,” said Kam Simmons, director of public policy and government affairs with Starsky Robotics, one of the companies developing autonomous trucks.
The company’s tele-operation technology would allow a licensed driver to maintain complete remote control of a truck from a command station. “They turn the wheel five degrees, the truck turns its wheel five degrees,” Simmons explained. It’s his hope that this tele-operation position would be more appealing to millennials and others who may not have found long-haul trucking an appealing career choice, but would go to an office to drive a truck remotely for a normal 9-5 work day.
The next question on many people’s minds: When are we going to see this roll out and where? “We’ll see it first in states where it’s easiest to deploy,” said Simmons. “Does the highway have good striping? Good weather conditions? Are there distribution centers near the highway?”
“No one in the industry has figured out how to drive [an autonomous truck] when it’s just snowed three feet,” he added.
“Certain states are already moving towards allowing autonomous vehicles,” said Froat. “Five years from now, I could see some states allowing it. If the infrastructure will allow it, and the state government will allow it, then why not?”
Both Froat and Simmons see enormous potential for autonomous trucking to reduce the two largest line items for freight companies: labor and fuel.
“The more automated we get, the more labor costs and fuel costs decrease with more efficient driving,” said Froat.
“What autonomous trucking is going to offer is the ease of 24/7 operations … I think we can expect a huge increase in productivity in the distribution chain,” Simmons agreed. “The cost dynamics of autonomous trucks are such that for the first time ever in human history, we will be able to move bulk goods more effectively on land than we do on water. That has major implications.”
So how will autonomous trucking impact site selection for warehouses and distribution centers?
“It’s important now to get these warehouse spaces close-in to cities, but I expect that to change,” said Simmons. “The one thing you always hear with real estate is ‘location, location, location.’ With the proliferation of autonomous trucking, we can expect a major shift in prime real estate,” he predicted.