On December 22, 2021, TuSimple accomplished a significant feat for the trucking industry by undertaking the first fully autonomous semi-truck trip on public roads without human input. The 80-mile voyage from Tucson to Phoenix, Arizona, though brief at 80 minutes, represented a crucial breakthrough, particularly in light of the current truck driver shortage.
As per Harvard Business Review, only 2.4 million truck drivers in the United States shoulder the responsibility of transporting over 70% of U.S. freight by weight. In time, autonomous trucks could potentially alleviate the shortage of truck drivers. However, this raises a pertinent question: Will automation replace drivers? The likely answer is no. The trucking industry will continue to rely on the labor of dedicated drivers for the foreseeable future.
The Argument for Autonomous Trucks
Though autonomous cars have been in development for some time, semi-trucks are arguably better suited for automation.
Unlike autonomous cars, which must navigate intricate cityscapes and sinuous local roads, semi-trucks generally ply predictable routes, spending most of their time on highways. Consequently, they encounter fewer unforeseen variables like pedestrians, cyclists, and scooter riders, simplifying the job of automated systems.
Significant Vehicle Size
Regardless of their size, autonomous vehicles utilize similar technology—cameras, radars, and Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR) devices—that transmit sensor data to a computer to control it. Given the larger size of trucks, there is ample space for technology, accommodating more powerful computers and allowing sensors to be positioned higher off the ground for a better view.
Fewer Reservations from Purchasers While individuals may exhibit skepticism toward autonomous vehicles, businesses are generally more receptive.
The Future of Jobs in the Trucking Industry
The advent of autonomous vehicles has sparked concerns among truckers about job security. However, drivers may still be necessary for many years because of several factors.
Complete Automation Is Still Distant
The Society of Automotive Engineers delineates five levels of automation for autonomous vehicles, from 0 (no automation) to 5 (complete automation). The higher the level, the less human intervention is required.
Level 0: No Automation Standard vehicles without any automation features.
Level 1: Driver Assist Vehicles with basic automation features like cruise control and lane-keep.
Level 2: Partial Automation The driver needs to keep their hands on the wheel always, but the vehicle assists with steering and speed control, lane centering, and maintaining an appropriate distance from the vehicle ahead.
Level 3: Conditional Automation The vehicle can drive itself under ideal conditions, with the driver required to be present to handle less-than-perfect situations like poor weather.
Level 4: High Automation Vehicles can operate without human interaction but cannot function under specific conditions.
Level 5: Full Automation Vehicles under this level don’t require steering wheels or pedals and can operate under any conditions without human interaction. However, this level of automation in the trucking industry is still a distant reality.
We are far from realizing level 5 automation. Investments in level 2 and level 3 automation, which necessitate a driver’s presence, are currently more common. The future of trucking is likely to resemble the present aviation scenario—airplanes are largely autonomous but always have a pilot on board to handle unpredictable conditions, equipment failure, or emergencies.
Truckers’ Roles Extend Beyond Driving
Driving trucks is only one aspect of a truck driver’s job. They also load, secure, and unload cargo, and handle maintenance issues—tasks that are far from being fully automated. While vehicle sensors can detect many issues, it still requires a human to replace a tire or refuel the truck.
Incompatibility of Technology With Short Trips
The primary design of the autonomous truck technology caters to longer interstate trips rather than short ones. According to the Harvard Business Review, only about one-fourth of heavy vehicles are used for long hauls, while about half are used for short distances (50 miles or less). Even if other barriers to autonomous trucks were eliminated, only a quarter of drivers would be affected, potentially positively. Autonomy might cover long distances, enabling drivers to remain near their homes, driving only the last few miles for long-haul loads that are awaiting at local terminals.
Numerous laws and regulations surrounding truck driving may slow down the adoption of autonomous vehicles. Our infrastructure is not yet equipped to service autonomous trucks. Different states have varied views on regulating these vehicles, with some prohibiting level 4 automation.
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