Who -- or What -- Is Driving That 18-Wheeler?

Autonomous-vehicle technology is about to bring big changes to the way our freight moves. It can't come soon enough.
June 5, 2017
Daimler Freightliner self-driving trucks were demonstrated last spring in Las Vegas. (AP)
By Wes Guckert  |  Contributor
President and CEO of The Traffic Group

We have seen the future, and it looked like a beer truck. In October, a tractor-trailer equipped with self-driving technology delivered a load of Budweiser 120 miles down Colorado's Interstate 25. After navigating the roads from the brewery to the highway, the driver of Uber's truck hit the "engage" button and left his seat. It was the first delivery of commercial cargo by a self-driving vehicle.

Uber isn't the only player in the self-driving-truck business. Tesla and Volvo are working on deploying driverless-vehicle technology to move freight, and other companies are sure to follow. But it was as good a demonstration as any of the impact of the emerging new mobility, in which transportation network companies such as Uber and Lyft deploy driverless vehicles, as well as human-driven ones equipped with autonomous-vehicle technology, to transport not only people but also the goods whose movement is essential to our economy.

It's being referred to as "mobility as a service," or MAAS, and it's not something that will be far off in the future. Former U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has predicted that we'll see these changes within five to 10 years, and at least 19 companies say they expect to put self-driving vehicles on the road by 2021. The technology behind MAAS has already begun to change the way transportation engineers and traffic managers plan for the most efficient, least expensive and safest ways to move freight across the country.

This couldn't come at a better time for the freight and logistics industry, which has already reached crisis mode with a shortage of 40,000 to 60,000 truck drivers. The average age of a truck driver is now 55, and the shortage is forcing the industry to look to the new mobility as a means to transport goods. The demand for products delivered by trucks in the United States is expected to increase by 27 percent over the next 10 years while e-commerce continues to grow at a rate of 16 percent year over year. And as populations increase and urbanization continues, innovative ways to effectively and efficiently move goods into cities will need to be identified. Technology is going to be vital to urban logistics.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of autonomous-vehicle technology will be in the area of safety, which remains one of the greatest challenges in the movement of goods by trucks. Freight transportation is involved in approximately 13 percent of all highway fatalities and, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA), roughly 94 percent of all vehicle crashes are due in part to human error.

But 80 percent of those crashes could be avoided or mitigated with the autonomous-vehicle technology that is already being deployed for human-driven vehicles, such as forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, lane-keeping and blind-spot assistance, and adaptive cruise control. In December, NHTSA proposed requiring that light-duty vehicles be equipped with vehicle-to-vehicle communications technology by 2023.

While these technologies are coming quickly, they won't arrive overnight, and truck-driving jobs aren't going to be automated out of existence. It will be a gradual process that won't crush the industry but rather will supplement it, and it actually will help to extend the careers of many drivers -- particularly older ones.

Self-driving trucks, like the one that delivered that load of beer in Colorado, will allow drivers on long-haul routes to rest or sleep, reducing accidents stemming from driver fatigue. Robotic trucks will be able to drive on open roads, with a human driver taking over navigation to the warehouse, acting as the "last-mile operator." There, robots will be able to unload the trailer and place the boxes into smaller vehicles that will make their way directly to homes and stores.

The idea of a heavily loaded 18-wheeler cruising the highway with no one in the driver's seat may seem unsettling now, but it won't be that long before it becomes a common sight. These technologies will reduce the cost of moving goods across the country while benefiting both efficiency and safety. The technology is developing at a rapid and accelerating pace. We need to not only understand it but to embrace it.