Thoughts on Driverless Trucks

Below is a portion of the U.S. Roadmap for Material Handling and Logistics I wrote on the potential impact of driverless or self-driving vehicles on the logistics industry. To see and comment on the entire Roadmap, please go here.

Wildcard: Motor Freight Transport with Driverless Vehicles

The driverless vehicle is here, and the implications are huge. We have labeled this topic a “wildcard” because it is surrounded by so much uncertainty. There is little doubt about the technology—driverless cars have been built and tested, and licensed cars are driving the streets of Nevada, California, and Florida. Google’s self-driving cars have already logged more than 400,000 miles. Whether and how these vehicles will be integrated into our national system of transportation is another question entirely.Volvo Driverless Truck Concept

First, some definitions. The term “driverless car” has come to refer to a vehicle that navigates itself between locations in the presence of ordinary cars and other driverless cars—akin to “auto pilot” in airplanes. Whether or not the car has a driver onboard is a separate question. In the same way that an airplane on auto pilot is flying itself with a pilot onboard, a “driverless car” might be driving itself with a driver onboard. Thus, we must make a distinction between a self-driving car that has a passenger/driver onboard and a driverless car that does not.

The issues surrounding self-driving and driverless vehicles are many: Will society accept the self-driving car? Will it accept the driverless car? If so, will self-driving and driverless trucks be allowed? If the latter, will special lanes be required? What will be the coverage of those lanes? Major interstates only? U.S. Highways? Will driverless trucks be allowed to make commercial and residential deliveries, or will they be restricted to long haul transportation between hubs? The answers to these questions will determine the implications of driverless technology on the material handling and logistics industry.

A likely scenario is that self-driving cars will be operating in normal traffic by 2025, but that those cars will be required to have a licensed driver onboard. It is likely that self-driving will be allowed only on certain roads (interstates, open highways, etc.), and perhaps only at certain times of day. We assume that the same rules will apply to trucks as to cars.

Implications for Logistics Systems

If we are right, the implications for logistics systems will be fairly modest.

  • Trucks will still have to have licensed drivers, failing to ease the truck driver labor problem. It is possible, however, that attending a self-driving truck would be less arduous than traditional truck driving, and that driver retention would improve.
  • Truck drivers are likely to require the same level of qualification, so the labor cost of transportation is likely to stay the same.
  • Assuming attending drivers will have to be awake, established work-rest rules for truckers will remain intact, and the geographical reach of “a day’s drive” will be approximately the same.

Some benefits will arise, however:

  • Self-driving and driverless cars and trucks are able to respond more quickly to dynamic driving conditions, which allows vehicles to follow one another more closely. This would have the effect of reducing traffic congestion, due to “tighter convoys” and increased density of flow.
  • Self-driving trucks would not tire or get sleepy, so traffic accidents involving trucks likely would decrease significantly.

In the less-likely case that society accepts truly driverless trucks, the implications for logistics systems and the economy are profound:

  • The truck driver labor crisis would (eventually) be averted, as retiring truck drivers are replaced by technology.
  • Trucks would be able to drive around the clock, thereby extending the reach of a day of transportation and improving logistics service.
  • Extending the geographical reach of a truck would eventually reduce the number of needed warehouses, because the same level of service (in days to deliver) could be provided by fewer, larger warehouses. Companies nationwide would have an incentive to redesign their supply chain networks.
  • Finally, the total cost of transportation likely would go down, thus reducing the total landed cost of products on shelves and effectively pumping more money into the economy.

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