It’s no secret that the trucking industry is suffering from a driver shortage. Even prior to the covid pandemic truckers were already becoming a dying breed, and that shouldn't come as a surprise when you consider the day-to-day realities of being a truck driver.
Truckers spend an average of 300 days per year on the road, traveling an average of 125,000 miles during that time. Stuck behind the steering wheel of a big rig for endless hours and days, drivers can only expect a median salary of $47,000 per year. With their quality of life and relatively poor pay, it’s no wonder why the trucking industry has problems finding and retaining drivers.
Contributing to port congestion, a lack of drivers has amplified the supply chain issues we’ve experienced since COVID’s onset. One possible solution to the driver shortage is to remove the need for drivers altogether through the use of self-driving trucks. But how far along is this technology and what are the ramifications of its mass adoption?
Current State of Self-Driving Technology
While Tesla may call its combined automated safety and driver assistance systems “Autopilot”, the idea of punching in a destination and sitting back while the vehicle does the rest is far from the reality of what Tesla’s Autopilot provides. In fact, the vast majority of “self-driving” vehicles on the road today aren’t really self-driving at all.
The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) developed a classification system that grades autonomy from Level 0 (none) to Level 5 (complete autonomy of all driving tasks in all conditions.) The consumer vehicles on the road today are mostly Level 2 with some companies (Mercedes and Honda) just beginning to offer Level 3 capabilities.
The notable difference between Level 2 and Level 3 is the requirement of the driver to be engaged with the act of driving while the system is in use. Level 2 systems, like Tesla’s Autopilot, require drivers to be alert at the wheel, ready to take back control of the vehicle at any moment. Level 3 systems don’t require constant vigilance but may still require a human driver to take over at times.
Suffice it to say that fully autonomous cars intended for the consumer mass market are still quite a ways out, but that doesn’t mean the technological capability isn’t much closer than the consumer market would make it seem.
The Future of Self-Driving Trucks
From the Associated Press (AP News), right at the tail end of 2021, a TuSimple “semitruck completed an 80-mile route in Arizona with no human on board and no human intervention during the trip…” This test proved the technology for self-driving trucks is well on its way, with TuSimple on pace to offer Level 4 (no human required onboard) autonomous semis by 2024.
While self-driving technology is practically at our doorstep, regulations and safety concerns stand in the way—and for good reason. But as these systems become more advanced and their safety better established, mass adoption is almost guaranteed.
Driverless trucks can alleviate the issue of truck driver shortages while also reducing costs and transportation time. Human drivers need regular breaks for things like food and sleep, but autonomous vehicles can run 24 hours a day, shortening the time of transportation drastically.
The potential benefits and cost-savings offered by driverless vehicles is a prospect too rich to ignore. But the technology is still in development and regulators will need a lot of convincing before we see entire fleets replaced by robot trucks. And while we wait, the truck driver shortage is expected to worsen—leading to more price increases and delays.
While it might seem that a lot of companies are going the route of more technology and less people, many still appreciate the personal touch of experienced personnel. Here at ClearFreight we’ve created a nice balance between technology and people, so our clients can use our technology to track and trace their shipments and have the ability to call a dedicated representative if they need anything. Contact ClearFreight today to hear how our customized supply chain solutions can make logistics easier for you.