Is Autonomous Trucking the Future Solution of the Trucking Industry?
There is a significant worldwide truck driver shortage with 50,000-60,000 more drivers needed in the industry in the UK ² ; demand for road freight deliveries continues to rise with the trend for consumers to buy online, and the cost of employing a truck driver is a significant part of the total cost of ownership of a truck.
This is why many believe autonomous trucking will be a good solution- they could reduce labour costs, keep running 24/7 as they won’t need to stop for driver rest time or distance limitations, save fuel and potentially be more efficient than human- operated trucks.⁶
But it’s not as simple as this. Many have different predictions about when autonomous trucking will be a regular feature on our roads; however, what is believed is that it will be a gradual approach, notably in four phases. ⁴
1. Constrained Platooning of Trucks
This phrase is currently in activation, and is to digitally connect two or more trucks through a dedicated radio frequency, allowing the trucks to communicate with each other.¹ The first step is to have a lead truck driver and the following truck(s) driven by a driver also, but are permitted to operate autonomously. The second step removes the following truck drivers and only occurs on interstate highways in the US, due to the long stretches of uninterrupted road, between dedicated truck stops.⁴
This method is realistically predicted to occur on interstate highways in the US between 2022 and 2025, and in other geographically fenced areas depending on weather and visibility. Some companies are currently testing this platooning concept which can save fuel through improved aerodynamics gained from the trucks travelling close together. Infrastructure allowing the trucks to communicate with traffic lights will be key to making this happen, which is why US highways are the perfect introduction to this Autonomous trucking. ¹
The US Army is also said to be testing this driverless Platooning in the next year on two US bases.¹
2. Constrained Autonomy
Constrained autonomy involves a driver used for pick-up and delivery sections of the operation, but AI controls the operation between these two points, again operating only on long stretches of road, i.e. US interstate highways.⁴
3. Full autonomy
Ultimately this final step sees fully automated trucks driving all the way from pick- up to delivery. Initially drivers are used to assist and take over in emergency situations, but eventually self- driving trucks will operate the whole journey.⁴ It is said to take many years for this full autonomous trucking fleet to replace the thousands of conventionally driven trucks, and so it is unlikely we will be seeing this in the near future.¹
With the many benefits Autonomous trucking can bring us, such as tackling the driver shortages that many countries are facing, reduced labour costs, no driver rest time or limitations and saving on fuel ⁶, there are many limitations and barriers Autonomous Trucking has, meaning it can’t be implemented everywhere.
Cities and urban areas are a particular problem for autonomous trucks, with areas much more congested and more difficult to navigate than highways and motorways. ³ Truck Platooning can also only work with trucks travelling to the same destination, and so the ability for trucks to leave and join whilst travelling is an added complication that would need to be further explored.⁵
There is also the added complication that these Autonomous Trucks have been designed to initially start driving on US interstate highways. But what about other countries? US interstate highways don’t have the interruption of many traffic lights, junctions or round-a-bouts that roads in other countries have. Autonomous trucking must explore how the trucks can communicate with traffic lights, round-a-bouts and other junctions before they can introduce the practice into the UK and other European countries.
For now, it seems the US will be seeing Autonomous Trucking on interstate highways long before they are on the roads in the UK and the rest of Europe.