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What do autonomous trucks mean for the trucking industry?

Tesla, Uber, Volvo, and GM have all either rolled out an autonomous truck or have one in the works – and they are not alone. Most automotive brands are including some form of autonomous vehicle for deliveries in their coming lineup. What does this shift towards self-driving capabilities mean for the industry and for drivers? A few key points to consider about autonomous trucks are detailed below.

Self-driving trucks are equipped with sensors and cameras and are often designed to work together in a group. A platoon of vehicles can work together on the highway under the supervision of a driver; the trucks follow one another and stick together, using the same rate of speed. They are designed to address several key issues ranging from fuel and delivery efficiency to the driver shortage and even safety.

While the technology is in its infancy, trucks carry about 70% of all goods delivered in the US; any methods that increase efficiency and safety are of interest to the industry. Brands like Tesla are banking on this interest and rapidly developing autonomous vehicle technology.

What do autonomous trucks mean for the trucking industry?

Platoons, Not Single Vehicles

Much of the interest in autonomous trucking is based on the platoon model, which features a group of 5-7 vehicles that work together. While autonomous driving technology will work in cities, those in the trucking industry are focusing on highway travel. By creating a platoon, the trucks can operate on a semi-supervised level as they travel long distances, allowing drivers to rest on board – then take over when the final stages of delivery are complete.

Enhancing Safety

One of the goals of autonomous trucks is to eliminate some of the causes of accidents and increase safety on the roadways. This type of vehicle will be most useful at eliminating human error – distraction, fatigue, and other issues will not be a problem for an autonomous vehicle.

Mail Deliveries

In addition to consumer goods and inventory deliveries for private brands, the government is interested in autonomous trucking as well. The US Postal Service recently announced a plan to bring autonomous mail trucks online in the next decade. They are working with the University of Michigan to create trucks designed for rural delivery in areas that are sparsely populated.

Mining and Engineering

Caterpillar, one of the best-known names in the mining industry, has already begun deploying vehicles used in mining via their self-driving Cat Command system. This allows for more streamlined work, more efficiency, and heightened safety on site – and helps with the driver shortage in the industry as well.

What about trucking jobs?

In the near future, there will likely not be much change for most drivers. Since the autonomous trucks being developed are progressing slowly, focus on highway driving, and require a human driver onboard, the impact will be minimal for now. Even when these platoons become more commonplace, skilled drivers are still needed to supervise and handle the more refined stages of delivery.

One of the goals of the self-driving truck is to address the growing truck driver shortage and make it easier for people to become drivers. Current limitations and restrictions pose a challenge for existing drivers and keep some prospects from entering the field entirely. A truck that is even semi-autonomous can help relieve the burden of compliance and ensure drivers are ready to take over for the truck and that they experience less stress and fatigue on the go.

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