What Happens When Trucks Drive Themselves?

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What Happens When Trucks Drive Themselves?

Night and day, the nation’s highways are filled with millions of trucks. This enormous fleet—253 million trucks—is essential to the U.S. economy and to our standard of living, bringing food, medicine, electronic devices, and virtually everything else that Americans consume from the producer to the retailer or the end-user.

Now, with the advances in driverless vehicle technology that we’ve been discussing in previous issues, the opportunity to make this fleet more efficient is here. Within the next 15 years at most, driverless trucks—navigating from point to point without a human driver by using radar, GPS, sensors, and software—will disrupt the industry.

Among the benefits will be:

  • Speed: Driverless trucks will be able to operate 24 hours a day, compared to a legal maximum of 11 hours for human drivers, so cargo will be delivered in less than half the time. Overnight or same-day ground delivery of more products will be available.
  • Safety: Fewer accidents will occur as crashes based on human error and driver fatigue will be eliminated. Truck collisions cost $87 billion a year, with 116,000 deaths and injuries resulting from truck and bus accidents.1
  • Fuel efficiency: According to the Center for Automotive Research, driverless trucks will use 15 to 20 percent less fuel because they will be programmed to accelerate and brake at optimal efficiency.2
  • Productivity: Many companies struggle today with driver shortages of 15 percent, so removing the driver from the equation will enable more freight to be moved.3
  • Reduced traffic congestion: Trucks will be programmed to avoid traveling through cities when commuter traffic on highways is already heavy.
  • Cost savings: Companies will need fewer trucks, and they’ll be able to eliminate the expense of human drivers. Manufacturers and retailers will pay lower shipping costs, and consumers will pay lower prices for the products they buy in stores.

Autonomous trucks are already operating in a remote region of Australia called The Pilbara, where Caterpillar is using 45 automated mining trucks at an iron-ore mine.4 The trucks carry rocks and dirt 24 hours a day, using their on-board software to navigate around obstacles. Before automation, each truck would require four drivers to operate in six-hour shifts around the clock, so the company has replaced 180 drivers with a handful of “technical specialists” who sit in a control room miles from the site, watching the trucks’ movements on computer displays...

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