Savings could amount to up to $800,000 per truck operated autonomously over three years.
Savings could amount to up to $800,000 per truck operated autonomously over three years.
( Source: Adobe Stock)

Driverless Trucks Overview - A Closer Look at Autonomous Trucks

Author / Editor: Seth Lambert / Nicole Kareta

Just as there are autonomous cars, there are autonomous trucks, but the needs and feature sets of self-driving trucks differ greatly than those for self-driving cars. Apart from changed requirements, there are also advantages such as cost saving potentials.

As an industry, trucking is worth trillions of dollars. In the U.S. alone, revenues from the trucking industry rose to USD$796.7 billion in 2018, up from USD$700.1 billion the previous year, according to the American Trucking Associations. Long-haul portions of those amounts are almost half those numbers, according to industry groups.

Every day, trucks move 150 pounds of goods per American citizen. Within the U.S., trucks move 70% of all freight by volume. But because of poor fuel efficiency and high labor costs, moving freight by truck can cost 35 times as much or more as it costs to move it by ship. One of the best ways to reduce trucking expenses would be to eliminate much of the labor and fuel inefficiency costs.

As vehicles, trucks are expected to become autonomous—at Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Level 5 (“fully autonomous”)—before cars will be for a very clear reason: much of trucks’ travel is on highways, which are far simpler for autonomous driving platforms to navigate than municipal streets.

Why trucks are different from cars

Ordinary trucks are not simple vehicles. Fully loaded, an average full-size 18-wheel semi-tractor-trailer truck can weigh 32,000 kilograms (about 80,000 pounds). Just keeping a truck aligned straight in a heavy wind (particularly when its trailer is empty) can normally take concentrated effort on the part of the driver. All drivers need to undergo intense training for driving and basic maneuvering—such as parking, making turns, braking, and reversing—that in a car would ordinarily be quite simple.

“In order [for trucks] to go driverless, we need better prognostic and performance measurement,” says Wally Steagall, the vice-chairman of the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council. “For that to really be safe and not have a driver in a cab, you’ve got to replace that driver’s gut feel of a vehicle with a nervous system that’s advanced enough for it to recognize when something’s wrong. An open door switch? That’s one thing, but knowing that a trailer’s on fire or something’s vibrating in a way that’s not normal, but there’s really nothing firing off a fault code? Those are things we can’t do yet. The feedback that you need from the vehicle, to be safe, is significantly more than we currently have.”

Truck driving can be an intensive, monotonous, and often thankless task. Every year in the U.S., there are at least 500,000 accidents involving trucks (most caused by human error). Around 5,000 of these include fatalities; this makes truck driving one of the most dangerous professions there is. Truck accidents tend to be far more deadly and destructive than car accidents; the average long-distance truck driver will have been in a major accident within their first five years of hauling. Accounting for at least some of these issues is the fact that the acceleration, braking, and blind-spot profiles of a truck are very different from those of a car.

Fortunately, the kinds of autonomous vehicle (AV) sensors aboard an autonomous truck are longer range (sometimes up to a mile), heavier-duty, and better-situated than their equivalents on cars. This is because a truck cab is typically higher off the ground and has better vision of the surrounding environment. Even rear-facing equipment can be mounted higher up on a trailer, and expenses for high-end sensors are usually less of an issue than with cars because of the greater value of a truck and its cargo.

A driver shortage

Initially, both within the AV industry and outside it, there were concerns that autonomous operations would cut into the human labor force of truck driving, eliminating jobs and making drivers redundant. However, at present, the trucking industry has a shortage of roughly 60,000 qualified drivers. Currently, the U.S. has about 1.8 million truck drivers in total. At least half of these drivers are expected to retire in the next 15 to 20 years.

By some estimates, to meet personnel demand as well as growing shipping needs, the trucking industry needs to hire or otherwise replace 90,000 new drivers per year for the next 10 years (900,000 in total). About 49% of these new hires are needed for driver replacement, while shipping growth accounts for 28% of the remainder. And long-term personnel losses aren’t the only issue; current trucking industry driver turnover is up to 300% per year. The lack of long-haul drivers has already led to some seaports on the East Coast to being deepened to get deliveries closer to their destinations to begin with.

Truck drivers can only work 11 hours per day in most states due to safety regulations. Because logistics firms are all about efficiency (and because drivers are motivated to achieve maximum earnings), many drivers drive seven days (or 77 hours) per week. This can keep long-haul drivers away from their homes for most of a month, and it’s one of the primary causes of driver turnover.

Potential efficiency improvements

In theory, autonomous operation would allow trucks to operate 24 hours per day. No rest breaks, no bathroom breaks, and no food breaks would be necessary; all 24 hours of that time could be spent driving. This translates to cross-U.S. runs taking just 48 hours—two days instead of their current five. In fact, if you take into account paperwork and freight transfer time, this would allow autonomous trucks to nearly compete with air freight for speed. Startup Embark Trucks is so taken with this idea that it convinced American truck builder Peterbilt to increase the size of its gas tanks in trucks made for Embark to accommodate 48 hours’ worth of fuel (versus the current 12), so no refueling stops would be necessary.

Such continuous operation would take a toll on equipment, however. Whereas a normal truck might be driven 100,000 miles in a year, an autonomous truck might be driven more than 300,000 miles and reach its million-mile lifespan in just three years.

On the other hand, autonomous driving of trucks produces a better maintenance and part replacement record. There typically is also a fuel efficiency savings of up to 30%. In addition, some observers have calculated that savings to companies (and product consumers) and/or lower fleet costs could amount to up to $800,000 per truck operated autonomously over those three years.

Regulatory environment

Regulation of autonomous trucking is currently a barrier for autonomous truck industry players, but less than one might think. In October 2018, the United States federal government included trucks for the first time in its Automated Vehicles (AV) 3.0 regulatory guidance document. Among other provisions, the document for the first time permitted the operation of autonomous trucks on more than 90 % of federal interstate roads once their safety has been demonstrated.

These provisions were written by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). The 3.0 document further stated that “…in the case of [trucks] that do not require a human operator, none of the human-specific Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations apply.” In plain language, this means that drug testing requirements, specifically allowable hours of service, a need for commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), and physical qualification requirements are not applicable to autonomous trucks and that “…[FMCSA’s] policy is that going forward, FMCSA regulations will no longer assume that the CMV [commercial motor vehicle] driver is always a human or that a human is necessarily present onboard a commercial vehicle during its operation.”

Addressing the possibility that state rules could still constrain interstate operation of autonomous trucks, AV 3.0 clearly notes that “if FMCSA determines that state or local legal requirements may interfere with the application of FMCSRs, the [FMCSA] has preemptive authority.”