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How Autonomous Trucking Will Transform Logistics

Editor’s note: Written David L. Buss, chief executive of DB Schenker USA, a global freight forwarder and 3PL provider. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

U.S. logistics companies are up against a lot of challenges, including a widespread and ongoing truck driver shortage. Shipping costs are rising due to many factors, including fuel costs, and compounded by companies paying higher wages for drivers.

With demand increasing, the truck driver shortage isn’t likely to end in the near future. Several factors may impact the shortages, such as current drivers retiring and a lack of young candidates entering the field.

While logistics companies can combat this with competitive wages, better benefits, and sign-on bonuses for drivers, autonomous freight offers a possible solution for limited truck driver supply and increasing demand.

Impact of Truck Driver Shortage

According to the American Trucking Association, the 2021 driver shortage stands at 80,000 drivers. If this trend continues with the demand outweighing availability, the industry could need 160,000 drivers by 2030.

Several factors impact this shortage, including the retirement of current drivers and the shortage of younger candidates entering the field. Nearly 25% of the current commercial driving workforce will be eligible for retirement in the next 10 years.

The electronic logging device (ELD) mandates, which dictate how long a driver can be behind the wheel, also increase the pressure on the current driving workforce. Furthermore, the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse prohibits around 65,000 drivers from driving.

In short, the industry demand is increasing, but these factors are making it increasingly difficult for shippers to find qualified drivers.

How Employers are Combatting the Problem

Amid the truck driver shortage, companies are trying to make the field more attractive to younger candidates. Some companies are offering sign-on bonuses, competitive wages, and enhanced benefit packages to attract candidates.

Compensation isn’t the only limitation, however. Some younger candidates are deterred from the field because of its demands. Companies are trying to combat this with the promise of better quality of life. Truck drivers are offered better work-life balance, better facilities, and lower wait times, along with competitive compensation packages.

Autonomous Trucking as a Solution

Autonomous trucks offer an all-in-one remedy to the shortage of drivers, the growing demand for shipping, and better safety on the road – if the technology improves enough.

Self-driving trucks have numerous benefits over human drivers. They can operate around the clock to deliver goods, offering a solution to the ELD mandates, which limit truck drivers to eight hours of work before a break and no more than 11 hours of daily driving. Self-driving trucks can operate up to 17 hours daily.

David L. Buss

Autonomous vehicles are not without their own limitations, however. Currently, self-driving trucks are mostly operated in the Sun Belt states, due to their unreliability in extreme weather conditions. In intense snow and fog, a human driver is preferred.

The infrastructure also has to catch up to autonomous trucking. Self-driving vehicles, trucks or otherwise, rely on high-speed 5G internet connections to facilitate vehicle-to-driver, vehicle-to-vehicle, and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications. Much of the country is lacking this necessary 5G infrastructure.

On the labor union front, self-driving trucks create concerns. These groups are concerned about automation displacing as many as 3 million workers, despite the likelihood that human drivers will never disappear completely.

Labor Pushback

Labor unions are also pushing lawmakers to create stricter regulations surrounding self-driving vehicles, based not only on the job concerns but also the accidents that have occurred with semi-autonomous vehicles from major manufacturers.

These groups are putting pressure on Congress to enact policies in place to prioritize safety, define the scope of autonomous vehicle technologies, and create workforce training and a job-loss mitigation plan. They’re also calling on lawmakers to ensure that the development and use of autonomous vehicles will create middle-class US manufacturing jobs.

In the interim, several manufacturers are in a race to perfect automated trucking technology. Daimler, one of the world’s biggest trucking companies, has announced an investment of $573 million in autonomous trucks. Tesla also revealed plans for its own autonomous trucks, and Aurora, another major manufacturer, created its own autonomous truck operating system.

Considering all these factors, it’s likely that hybridization between automated trucks and human drivers is the ideal solution to tackle this ongoing challenge.

Hybridization between human drivers and automated trucks on different routes is a possible solution to address multiple challenges. The factors impacting the truck driver shortage haven’t gone away – they’ve only increased – and consumer demand is on the rise.

Likewise, the developments in self-driving trucks are limited. Together, self-driving trucks and human drivers can fill the gaps and complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Last Mile, First Mile

For example, human drivers can drive in crowded urban environments that are too complex for automation technology at this time. Autonomous trucks work for the long-haul, cross-country routes in areas with mild climates. Humans will still be necessary for short routes and truck loading and unloading.

Trucking is a diverse industry, and many companies are already testing out solutions to address the ongoing demands. DB Schenker, a logistics provider on the forefront of freight technology usage, is testing MAN platooning trucks and advanced visibility software to prepare for future needs.

Shippers that rely on trucking to transport goods should pay attention to these trends and consider the opportunities to integrate them into their operations or partner with a third-party logistics provider. Experienced providers not only understand the fluctuations and challenges of the market, but they can provide guidance and advanced solutions to address current and future issues.

Expectations for the Future

Autonomous freight is a trend that’s sweeping the shipping industry, both with promise and apprehension. While labor unions have concerns about lost jobs and safety with self-driving trucks, it’s unlikely that autonomous freight will fully replace human drivers now or in the future. Hybrid solutions allow human drivers to bridge the gap by operating in conditions that are unsuitable for autonomous freight, such as crowded urban areas or in extreme weather. Conversely, self-driving trucks can operate for longer periods and traverse long-haul routes. Together, self-driving and human-driven trucks can address the shortage and keep the industry moving forward.

Trucks.com welcomes divergent thoughts and opinions on transport technology and trucking industry issues. Use the comments section to cite yours. Qualified opinion leaders are welcome to offer suggestions for opinion columns. Contact info@trucks.com.

Jerry Hirsch March 31, 2021
A series of recent deals involving Volvo, Aurora and Plus demonstrates how the journey to autonomous trucking is gaining speed. 

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