Pros and cons of autonomous trucks

The #long-haul commercial trucking industry is a major economic force in North America, responsible for delivering nearly 70 per cent of goods in the United States, with a similar market share in Canada. As currently structured, the industry is labour intensive and faces intense intramodal and intermodal competition. It also faces a persistent shortage of drivers – the work-life balance is poor so that it’s difficult to attract and retain drivers; at the same time, the boomer generation of drivers is retiring. The industry is also grappling with increased regulation governing the monitoring of drivers’ hours of work and the perception in some quarters that the industry’s safety record isn’t the best.

Pros

Although it appears that fully #driverless trucks will not become commonplace before 2030 at the earliest, proponents are already making strong arguments in favour of that level of automation. They argue autonomous trucks should improve highway safety by reducing human error, generally considered the largest cause of accidents. According to U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 94 per cent of crashes on U.S. highways are caused by human choice or error. Transport Canada noted human factors were the prime factors in the more than 1,800 road fatalities in Canada in 2014. Significantly, with lower accident rates and casualty claims, proponents believe vehicle insurance costs, including those for trucks, would decline sharply.

Autonomous trucks would also be a boon to efficiency and augment transportation capacity, according to management consultancy Oliver & Wyman’s Transport and Logistics 2016 report, in “that trucks would not need to sit idle during drivers’ mandatory rest periods. This change alone could reduce driver costs by up to two-thirds and increase equipment utilization by a third…Equally, highway capacity could increase by 200 per cent or more, since driverless vehicles can operate with closer spacing and at more consistent speeds.” http://owy.mn/2s7tRuh

An example of closer truck spacing tactics is platooning, which involves a number of trucks moving in close proximity to each other in a convoy – in some ways trucks acting like a train. This allows coordinated acceleration and braking, reduced wind drag among the convoy, and possibly substantially lower fuel consumption.

Autonomous trucks could – over the longer term but no time soon – also begin to address the trucking industry’s driver shortage and problem with driver retention. By increasing the technical expertise of the truck-driving profession, the industry could become a more attractive carrier choice for younger generations with computer expertise. The American Trucking Association predicts the industry’s driver shortage will increase to 175,000 annually by 2014 from the 48,000 driver shortage today. An updated Canadian Trucking Alliance study’s base case forecast calls for a shortage of 34,000 drivers by 2024 in Canada. Driver turnover rates in Canada are generally in 20 per cent to 30 per cent range.

Cons

Building the infrastructure required to accommodate autonomous trucks could be significant, from both a physical infrastructure point of view and the regulatory one. It will be difficult if not impossible to mix driverless and driver-controlled vehicles on the same highways at the beginning of the deployment, raising the possibility of pressure to create lanes dedicated to autonomous vehicles. And as has often been the case with disruptive technology, public taxpayers will shoulder the cost of regulating and enforcing use of autonomous vehicles. The re-writing of highway traffic codes, the regulatory assumptions regarding insurance liability, and the police enforcement of driverless trucks is expected to have a hefty cost.

Then there’s the potential employment impact of the technology. Currently, nearly two million people in the U.S. earn their living operating and repairing heavy trucks and tractor-trailers, at an average salary of over US$40,000 per year.  Already two U.S. politicians — Senators Susan Collins (R-Me.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — have asked the nation’s Government Accountability Office to look how autonomous truck technology could have the potential to displace transportation industry workers. http://bit.ly/2soZEcM

The senators note, “Technology has made America’s manufacturing sector more productive than ever before, but millions of blue-collar manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation. Similarly, the transition to automated vehicles raises questions about the future of the commercial trucking industry and its impact on our national and regional economies and workforce.”

While advocates believe autonomous vehicles including trucks will help mitigate traffic congestion and add much needed capacity to highway systems on account of greater precision and vehicle spacing, some are not so sure. The Rand Corporation’s 2016 report, Autonomous Vehicle Technology, A Guide for Policymakers, http://bit.ly/2rs8otS says autonomous vehicles seem likely to encourage increased vehicular traffic for a range of reasons, including the reduced cost of operating vehicles. This in turn could have significant implications for greater highway congestion, including more truck traffic, and greater urban sprawl for commuters and the location of logistics hubs further afield. At the same time greater car travel could bleed away patronage from public transit agencies, making them less efficient and more costly to run.

In addition, there may be real problems with autonomous vehicle software, which could be susceptible to glitches causing accidents or to hacking attacks and unauthorized disclosure of personal information.  The Teamsters’ union, in a labour dispute with a trucking company in the U.S., is already publicly warning against driverless trucks hauling hazardous material, voicing concerns that such trucks could be hacked to turn them into “driverless bombs.” http://prn.to/2sYKqsk

I invite your comments as I continue to explore the implications of this technology. My next blog installment will review specific barriers and challenges to the introduction of autonomous trucks.

Blog photo credit:

“Trucks” by Chris Martin is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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