Autonomous Trucks Are Coming Sooner Than You Think
Companies have said autonomous trucks are coming for years. What is the holdup?
Truckers were once hailed as the heroes of the pandemic. They worked to bring people food, toilet paper, and other supplies at a time when people couldn’t leave their homes and were dependent on deliveries to survive quarantine.
They may have been essential workers, but that did not make their jobs desirable. Now the U.S. faces a trucker shortage. Transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg estimates that 300,000 people leave the career every year. The American Trucker Association says there is a shortage of 80,000 drivers and there could be a shortage of 160,000 by 2030. It seems, then, a convenient time to start rolling out autonomous trucks.
Not everyone agrees about the shortage. More than 10 million Americans have commercial driver’s licenses and about 3.7 million trucks are on the road. “There is no shortage of truck drivers,” says University of Pennsylvania labor expert Steve Viscelli. “These are just really bad jobs.”
Truck drivers often complain of low pay and poor working conditions. It involves long hours and a lot of time alone. Deregulation in the 1980s allowed anyone to start a trucking business, which lowered the cost of moving goods by truck, and also every driver’s salary. The trucking workforce is aging, since young people are not joining the industry.
It’s easy to see why. The media and politicians have long warned that self-driving trucks will take away millions of jobs. “What might happen when the 350,000 American truckers who bought or leased their own trucks are unemployed and angry?”, wrote former presidential candidate Andrew Yang. “All it takes is one out of 350,000 to lead the others. It doesn’t take a big leap of the imagination to imagine mass protests that could block highways, seize up the economy, and wreak havoc.” He estimated this would happen between 2020 and 2030 (it already did last winter in Canada, albeit for more complicated reasons). How close is this eradication of jobs to happening in the U.S.?
Some companies have already started making deliveries using self-driving trucks. Aurora Innovation, a self-driving truck company, teamed up with FedEx to make deliveries in Texas. In September 2021, it began making trips between Dallas and Houston, a 240-mile drive. In March, the company began additional deliveries between Fort Worth and El Paso, a 600-mile trip. These trucks operate with a human safety driver, but the on-board computer drives it. Aurora expects the trucks to be fully autonomous by 2023.
Walmart is another company that uses autonomous trucks. They partnered with Gatik to make deliveries within Bentonville, AR. The truck moves customer orders between a Walmart “dark store” and a Neighborhood Market. Gatik began making autonomous deliveries with a safety driver in 2017, but since November 2021 they’ve operated without a safety driver. That’s the first time anywhere in the world that a self-driving truck operated without this. Gatik focuses on short-haul drives, but trucks can drive up to 300 miles.
TuSimple is another trucking company that has done a fully autonomous delivery. In December 2021, a TuSimple truck completed an 80-mile trip between Tucson and Casa Grande, AZ. They claim it was the first fully autonomous semi-truck run on open public roads. They plan on having a fully autonomous commercial trucking business by 2025.
All these companies claim fully autonomous trucking businesses are just a few years away. But companies have been saying this for years. What is the hold up?
One issue is safety. In 2018, a self-driving Uber car killed a pedestrian in Arizona. That led to increased scrutiny on autonomous vehicle companies. The companies claim that self-driving cars are safer. A major cause of accidents is driver fatigue, which would not be an issue with self-driving cars.
Federal regulations allow truck drivers to drive 11 hours a day. Since autonomous trucks don’t have drivers that need to rest, they save time and cost on shipping. A TuSimple truck drove 951 miles from Nogales, AZ to Oklahoma City. The route would normally take 24 hours, but the autonomous truck took only 16 hours and 6 minutes.
Regulations hamper the development of self-driving trucks. Every state has different regulations, which makes long-haul testing difficult. Companies also have to deal with federal regulations. Standardized rules would help the development of autonomous trucks.
Unfortunately, it’s not likely to happen, at least in the short term, because the government’s incentive is to protect existing jobs. Autonomous vehicle companies assure truckers that their services will still be needed. They expect the vehicle to self-drive on the highway, and then have a human take over the last mile trip in the city.
But that bit of pandering aside, there’s no way to guarantee that all truckers will keep their jobs or find a job in the same industry. Creative destruction, the process where old industries are disrupted by new technology, is good. Everyone will benefit from the cheaper goods, faster shipping, and fewer tired truck drivers that result from autonomous trucks. The question is just when the technology will actually happen.
This article featured additional reporting from Market Urbanism Report content staffer Rebecca Lau.