Self Driving Trucks: what it means for the Truck Industry.
The truck industry is on the cusp of a metamorphosis.
Nearly a dozen companies are working on the model of It is working on a model for developing autonomous trucking. These autonomous trucks would be controlled by a computer that has been fed data by a variety of sensors.
There have been companies like TuSimple, that have been successfully conducting tests, for depot-to-depot delivery runs, for automated deliveries.
As per the data from Acumen Research and Consulting, the semi and fully autonomous truck market are expected to reach approximately $88bn (£64bn; €74bn) by 2027, while it grows at a CAGR of 10.1% between 2020 and 2027.
The technology will revolutionize the $700bn a year industry as it creates new business opportunities and possibly saves millions of dollars, for the truck companies.
"It's a huge opportunity. The biggest impact ATs (autonomous trucks) will have is cost savings and efficiency," says Patrick Penfield, a professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University.
"The nice thing about ATs is that they'll be able to operate 24 hours a day and drive a consistent mileage rate, making trucks safer and more fuel-efficient.
Amongst the companies looking at Autonomous Trucking seriously is the California-based Waymo, a subsidiary of Google's parent company Alphabet.
There are however concerns about the huge number of job losses as millions of truck drivers could become redundant, without any other skills.
As per the Trucking Association, there are more than 3.5 million truck drivers; and the wider industry has more than 8 million people dependant on the truck industry. Trucking is the most common job in 23 states; and ranks higher than farming, teaching, and secretarial positions.
One of the strains in the industry is a driver shortage. The technology can help narrow the 60,000 shortfall of drivers - a gap that's projected to widen to 160,000 within the decade.
While Truck Driving is long and hard mental labor, it is also a specialized job and is a rewarding one too.
The experts like Raj Venkatesan, Professor of Business Administration at University of Virginia Darden School of Business, have rationalized that the job losses scenario is terribly misunderstood and would not as it is being projected.
He says, for at least the foreseeable future, even the Autonomous trucks would still have “drivers” in the Cabin as a safety measure and/or as human intervention in case of issues like accidents/documents that need to be discussed with the transport authorities on the highway.
"It's not clear at all now whether there will even be displacement," he says. "You need the backup driver. Within the next five or 10 years, it seems reasonable to expect some movement towards autonomy, but with a co-pilot. In my view, it's like a long-haul flight. The plane can be put on autopilot, but you still have the pilot."
The technology upgradation could also be a major challenge for the traditional man-power-driven Truck Industry.
The autonomous truck technology could involve substantial investments as the routes are uploaded and routes optimized.
The huge potential of the autonomous trucking segment could attract the attention of large corporations, accelerating greater adoption.
"How this technology will get adopted faster is when big companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Costco start to use it in their operations," he says. "That's when things will start to break loose and you'll start to see the growth."
However, these changes won't happen overnight.
"It won't be a flip of a switch," Waymo's John Verdon says. "It will be a gradual introduction driven by safety and tech readiness, versus an arbitrary, specific point in time. From our standpoint, it's really about getting to a place where we can repeat that safe, capable, consistent performance at scale."
The truck drivers meanwhile remain unconvinced and unconcerned. They insist that Truck Driving cannot do without Humans.
Craig Hoodless, a Truck Driver in the UK says "I'm not concerned. No, not at all," he says. "I can understand driverless trucks on highways that are long-distance, straight lines. But we don't have that here."
"I just delivered to a builder," he adds. "There's no way a driverless truck could be able to maneuver in and around pallets, bricks, and piles of stuff. I don't see it working."
An analogy that can be drawn from the 1930s Charlie Chaplin film: In Modern Times!