Managing 5 unintended consequences of autonomous trucks

Technology is only part of the equation when it comes to getting self-driving vehicles on the road

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Autonomous trucks operate on limited routes but will soon play a larger role in supply chains. Advocates argue they will make highways safer, reduce labor costs, improve fleet fuel efficiency, deliver long-distance loads faster, and improve equipment utilization. But to really deliver on such promises, industry leaders and other policymakers need to think through and plan for a container full of possible unintended consequences. Here are five key areas that must be managed well to pave the way for driverless trucking.

Managing the workforce. Truck drivers are in short supply and their wages represent the largest single expense for trucking companies, according to the American Transportation Research Institute. These factors incentivize trucking firms to reduce reliance on human drivers. By some estimates, the move to driverless trucks could eliminate as many as 500,000 jobs.

Naturally, such an outlook also discourages people from pursuing a truck-driving career, meaning the current driver shortage could continue.

Industry leaders contend there will be plenty of work for at least another generation of truck drivers, but those jobs will change. There may eventually be less demand for long-haul drivers and more for those who move loads through cities and other routes that are less suitable for driverless vehicles.

Trucking companies still must fight the perception that jobs are going away, and that battle will shape how they recruit new drivers and the incentives they offer to hire and retain them.

Managing infrastructure. The first iteration of widespread autonomous trucking will likely feature exchange hubs along major highways, with driverless trucks moving from hub to hub. Human drivers will handle the shipper-to-hub and hub-to-final delivery portions. This arrangement keeps autonomous trucks off congested urban streets and difficult rural routes.

Waymo and TuSimple, purveyors of autonomous trucks, built hubs to facilitate testing, but exchange hubs do not exist in large quantities; they must be developed, and at a cost. Companies will have to decide how much to invest in this infrastructure, but these hubs could also represent economic development opportunities, as trucking-related service providers could spring up nearby. Maintenance service providers may be particularly valuable given that autonomous trucks will operate 24/7 and therefore will need maintenance more often (not to mention more frequent replacement).

There also are unintended consequences for roadway maintenance. Software developers, for example, will need to program trucks to swerve ever so slightly rather than driving down the precise middle of a lane, which would cause that part of the road to wear out more quickly.

Managing the unexpected. The more that autonomous trucks are tested, the more developers will find scenarios that weren’t considered. For instance, when a truck pulls over on the side of a highway, a human driver gets out and, in keeping with federal regulations, puts three fluorescent-orange triangles behind the truck as a warning to approaching vehicles.

With no driver, of course, there’s no one to put out that warning; thus, a robot will need to be developed that activates in the event of roadside breakdown and properly places the emergency triangles.

Also, human drivers can deal with variability and react to the unexpected. If cargo begins leaking from a trailer, a driver would likely notice and do something about it. The challenge for software developers is to anticipate similar unexpected scenarios. If a sensor isn’t in place, problems can’t be identified or addressed.

Managing regulations. Balancing needed and over-regulation has never been easy, no matter the industry. Existing autonomous trucking regulations differ from state to state and technology is dynamic. Industry leaders and regulatory bodies need to find common ground and work to promote their shared interests in interstate commerce.

Managing risk. One of the benefits of driverless trucks is the expectation that they will be involved in fewer accidents than trucks driven by humans. In 2020, for instance, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) found that 32% of the large-truck crashes that resulted in a fatality involved at least one driver-related factor, such as speeding or impairment (fatigue, alcohol, illness, etc.). Such crashes often lead to large legal verdicts against trucking companies.

If no driver is present, trucking companies could shift some crash liability to the software company, which further incentivizes adoption.

Dozens of companies, many well funded, already are competing in the autonomous trucking industry. In time, however, some will not make it and others will merge to shrink the field even more. Such consolidation breeds certain industry-wide risks. For instance, if three million trucks are running on the same two software platforms, just one safety-related, systemic bug can grind the wheels of the supply chain to a halt.

These management challenges are significant for all logistics companies, but they are particularly daunting for smaller outfits and owner-operators who might not have the means to invest in autonomous trucks.

Those companies and operators may well find themselves thriving more in niche routes—final-mile deliveries, picking up from and delivering to exchange hubs, or taking loads on rural, winding roads. So, while the six-year-olds of the future might have a hard time getting a honk from a truck on the interstate, hope remains that the tradition will survive in the hinterlands.

About the authors:

  • Dr. Doug Voss serves as Professor of Logistics and Supply Chain Management at the University of Central Arkansas and holds the Scott E. Bennett Arkansas Highway Commission Endowed Chair of Motor Carrier Management. Doug worked in the trucking industry before beginning his academic career.
  • Arnold Maltz is Associate Professor Emeritus of Supply Chain Management at Arizona State University. He worked for three less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers and in logistics for a major health care manufacturer before his academic career at New Mexico State and ASU. He continues to follow motor carrier issues.
  • Dr. Kevin J. Dooley is a Distinguished Professor of Supply Chain Management in the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University. He is also Chief Scientist of The Sustainability Consortium, a Senior Global Futures Scientist in the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, and co-director of the Complex Adaptive Supply Networks Research Accelerator.
  • Andrew Balthrop is a research associate at the Supply Chain Management Research Center at the University of Arkansas. His present focus is on freight transportation and government policy, although he has also researched energy and environmental policy. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Georgia State University in 2012.

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