In 1995, Popular Science Magazine published a story about autonomous trucks and their deployment for combat convoys. These trucks relied on the use of satellites and a guidance system and still required the lead truck to have a human driver.
Later, the Japanese company Komatsu was the first to test five of their Ultra Class trucks in Chile in 2005, and since then, the industry has experienced explosive growth.
Now there are several significantly sized companies selling autonomous trucks, and one of the latest journeys spanned over 2800 miles and 41 hours.
What is an Autonomous Truck?
Autonomous or self-driving semi-trucks don't require a human driver, which makes them the cargo-hauling equivalent of a self-driving car.
These semi-trucks may still have a cab where a driver and passenger can sit, but some versions of self-driving trucks no longer accommodate a human operator.
While the design of an autonomous truck meant for shipping varies a little, the main consistent feature is the ability to carry large amounts of cargo, such as shipping containers packed with goods.
Who is Manufacturing Autonomous Trucks?
There are some significant players in the industry manufacturing autonomous vehicles and an even more substantial number of smaller companies supporting this industry by offering auxiliary services of their own. So far, the major manufacturers include:
These companies already have trucks on the road operating for a wide variety of companies in various industries. They also continue to test and improve their technologies for better reliability, efficiency, and safety to stay ahead of their competition.
How Autonomous Trucking is a Game Changer for Shipping Companies
There are numerous advantages to autonomous trucking, and using these trucks can save your company time, money, logistical headaches, and increase safety and reliability.
Save Money on Drivers
The main benefit of using an autonomous or self-driving truck is that you'll no longer need one driver per vehicle. Some self-driving truck companies claim that as early as 2024 or 2025, these trucks will deploy to strategic locations for regional routes.
The labor laws for drivers vary based on several factors, and it can be challenging for companies to keep up with applicable laws for individual employees when it comes to overtime and total hours worked.
Human drivers also suffer injuries and sickness that don't plague self-driving trucks, and these vehicles don't have a limit on how many hours they can work within a seven-day period. Companies can also save on the cost of paying drivers since each truck won't require a human occupant.
Simplify Working Shifts and Staffing
With fewer drivers needed, shipping companies can simplify their working shifts and adjust their staffing needs to fit where their autonomous trucks travel. For example, some companies have their self-driving cars navigate to an area just outside of a delivery location, and a driver completes the journey.
This hybrid of autonomous trucks and strategically located drivers provides a few key advantages:
- It allows for deliveries to busier locations, and areas where more complex maneuvering is required
- Keeps staffing costs low
- Maintains an appropriate level of safety
- Highly reliable deliveries
Since many shipping routes are predictable and infrequently change, it's possible to begin recording relevant data to improve the journey over time, which further reduces costs.
Using autonomous trucks also cuts down on shift changes and the complexities of scheduling drivers to comply with state and local laws.
Faster Trans-Coastal Deliveries
Self-driving trucks don't need to sleep like human drivers, and they also don't require breaks during long journeys. Much like regular vehicles, these trucks only require stops for fuel and can navigate inclement weather reliably.
The latest cross-country journey with an autonomous truck demonstrated that multi-day journeys are not only possible but highly efficient.
This range allows shipping companies to ship more cargo in less time and potentially help to reduce traffic during the day by having the trucks travel more at night.
Less Paperwork and Downtime
There's a lot of paperwork associated with human drivers, and downtime associated with conventional trucks used for shipping.
Autonomous trucks come equipped with advanced sensors and technology that reports abnormalities in their performance so they can get serviced before it becomes more of a problem.
Many of these autonomous trucks operate with much more efficient motors than a conventional truck, and they require less maintenance as a result. These trucks can also travel a farther distance than a traditional truck with a human driver, and that cuts down on emissions and carbon footprints.
When you get a new autonomous truck, you will have to take some time to add it to your current fleet and plan it's routes, but you won't need to complete onboarding paperwork or spend time on orientation like with a human driver.
You can also store a self-driving truck for any amount of time, and these trucks can run 365 days a year if properly maintained.
Stay Ahead of the Competition
Autonomous trucks are quickly taking over as more companies bring their own versions to market, and large shipping companies jump at the chance to cut costs and increase efficiency.
This change doesn't only benefit shipping companies; it helps their customers, and they'll likely enjoy the benefits of faster deliveries.
The autonomous trucking company, Embark, is already handling freight shipping for five Fortune 500 companies located in the southwestern US, and other companies will surely follow.
Walmart pre-ordered a total of fifteen Tesla semi-trucks, and Meijer, a grocery chain based in the midwest, also ordered four.
Every year, many large cargo trucks are involved in accidents, and this frequently has unfortunate consequences for everyone involved.
Autonomous trucks can reduce these accidents because they don't get tired, and they have onboard redundant computers that confirm commands before the truck makes a move. These trucks can also travel at any time to avoid traffic and congested areas.
The sensors on these vehicles are also sophisticated and provide a lot of information that could help make deliveries safer. These sensors can also give shipping companies valuable insights into how to deliver cargo better, faster, and with fewer incidents.
The Drawbacks of Autonomous Trucks
Autonomous trucks are not without their drawbacks, but it's important to understand the disadvantages and how they can impact your business.
Upfront Expenses and Time
Autonomous trucks tend to cost more than your average conventional semi-truck, with autonomous versions averaging $180,000 and traditional trucks costing around $120,000. While these figures vary somewhat based on location and specifications of the truck in question, one element remains consistent: it's an upfront cost.
This cost means that before you can start saving money, you have to purchase the truck which often requires putting down a deposit. Finding ways to implement a self-driving truck into your fleet takes some prior planning and careful thought, which takes time.
The bright side here is that although the autonomous trucks cost more upfront, you'll save a bit of money on fuel costs and maintenance in the long term.
The data on money saved from using autonomous semis is still developing, but in the next few years, as the trucks become more commonplace across the US, we can expect more precise data from industry-leading companies.
State and Local Laws
One issue with autonomous trucks is that state and local laws have not yet universally adapted to allow these vehicles to travel everywhere they need to go.
This legislation might not be an issue for all companies, particularly those who operate within a set region of the US. However, nationwide, the laws vary, and it can be challenging to keep up with them all if you're covering a large territory.
You'll Need a Transition Plan
If your company plans to start implementing the use of autonomous trucks, you'll need to have a plan for the transition. Not all autonomous trucks require a driver, but some will need drivers to take over in congested areas or busy streets.
To get the most out of your autonomous trucks, you'll also need to plan out how to use them best for your company's needs, and how you can gain the most benefit from the routes they take over.
Many companies use these trucks for short distances to deliver products from a central hub, but it's possible for these trucks to complete much longer journeys.
When you have a fleet of autonomous trucks, you know precisely how many driving hours they can complete and how much cargo they can move, so there's very little guesswork involved.
This level of consistency is not possible with human drivers, but if you don't buy enough self-driving trucks, you may find yourself on a waitlist for a new addition as other companies scramble to buy trucks themselves.
Forecasting your company's needs is standard in the shipping industry, and logistics for long-term and short-term freight get meticulously planned.
Unfortunately, delays in the manufacturing of autonomous trucks are far less predictable, and this can spell trouble for any shipping company.
There's also the potential that these autonomous trucks will break down more often under specific conditions, and this can mean delays and increased costs.
Looking to the Future
There's a good chance that autonomous trucks for commercial applications will get manufactured and utilized at scale much sooner than cars meant for consumers. That's mainly because long-distance highway routes are relatively predictable compared to busy streets in towns and cities.
Here are some other elements that you can expect from the autonomous truck industry and how they change the game for shipping companies worldwide.
World-Class Support Teams
Regardless of which company you buy autonomous trucks from, you'll gain access to their support teams that are creating practical, real-world solutions for shipping companies of all sizes.
Companies like Embark, Tesla, and TuSimple have teams of extremely talented individuals recruited from prestigious entities like NASA, Google, and Audi.
Each of these companies can work with you to find a tailored system of autonomous trucks and other components that work for your company.
This process isn't as simple as buying a truck and setting out on the road; there are far more capabilities to take advantage of to help increase your shipping effectiveness using current technology.
The greatest part about autonomous trucks is that they harness current state-of-the-art technology to advance the safety and efficiency of commercial transportation, and as that technology improves, the trucks will receive updates.
Many companies, like Embark, use this advanced technology to ensure that their vehicles are as safe as possible, and this typically involves redundant systems.
These makers also work closely with state and federal legislators and regulators to develop technology in a responsible manner without damaging the public's trust.
As a result, any shipping company could benefit from these efforts and utilize a customized autonomous vehicle system to take their business to the next level.
Ownership for the Lowest Price
For self-driving trucks that use electrical power, you'll end up saving a bit of money as electric costs roughly half as much as diesel, according to Tesla.
The company also notes that with fewer systems inside of an autonomous electric vehicle, you're looking at less maintenance, lower fuel costs, and a shorter return period on your investment.
Even if you don't purchase an electric semi, you'll still enjoy fuel savings as the automated driving software is far better at conserving fuel than a human driver.
A Network Just for You
Companies like Embark and TuSimple have taken autonomous trucking a step further and created a whole ecosystem for shipping companies that includes self-driving trucks, strategic terminals, and digital maps.
This technology allows the trucks to be autonomous and enables shipping companies to have peace of mind that their trucks are operating safely, efficiently, and with the least downtime possible.
With a customized network designed to suit the goals and needs of your company, you can make the most of your business without worrying about having the drivers to make the deliveries happen.
Autonomous trucks run 24/7 and 365 days a year, which allows shipping companies unlimited flexibility once they have the necessary trucks in their fleet.
As technology improves, there are fewer reasons not to take advantage of autonomous trucks as they will forever change the shipping industry. Unlike with human drivers, self-driving semi's don't get tired, and they're now capable of cross-country deliveries.
Safety improvements, enhanced efficiency in transportation, and unparalleled reliability come with the use of self-driving trucks, and shipping companies can easily leverage this technology to their advantage in a myriad of ways.