The Future of Freight Transport and the Implications of Self-Driving Trucks

The era of self-driving trucks is approaching, as was indicated by the unveiling of Freightliner’s partially autonomous big rig “Inspiration Truck.”  The Freightliner’s parent company Daimler, and other automotive design companies, are professing the positive changes of automation to the trucking industry and freight transport, there are conflicting views as to what degree? and when?

Considered “level 3” on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) automation scale, the Freightliner Inspiration Truck uses Daimler’s underlying “Highway Pilot” adaptive cruise control technology along with radar and a stereo camera to provide partial automation. This means that the vehicle takes over when the driver takes his hands off the steering wheel and his feet of the pedals.

Freightliner Inspiration for Self-Driving Trucks- Self-Driving Semi Trucks- Penn Lease

Having logged 10,000 test miles and been granted one of Nevada’s “Autonomous Vehicle” license plates, the real questions now begin regarding the viability and implications of this technology on U.S. roads.

Some of those questions being asked are:

  •         Can it someday replace or augment the insufficient number of drivers?
  •         Can it be safer?
  •         What are the biggest positives for freight transport?
  •         What are the biggest hurdles to overcome for broad adoption?

The first question is whether these semi-autonomous trucks, like the Inspiration Truck, will replace drivers or augment the current dearth of qualified drivers. The answer appears to be “not yet” as the vehicle still requires a driver in the cabin; the technology is not yet fully driverless.

The safety issue as it pertains to driver fatigue is fairly clear, as drivers could cede control when they become tired. Still, important questions remain concerning the need for quick response times to changing road conditions and traffic dynamics.

A quick Internet search will produce reactionary articles and posts like this one about how these self-driving trucks will displace not just drivers, but a large number of businesses and middle class incomes which serve the trucking industry. Perhaps, within the next 20 years. While the article makes some good points regarding potential safety over human drivers and “how they won’t need salaries or take breaks,” the broader implications are yet to be determined.  It’s difficult to image a self-driving truck refueling itself.

Other sources point out the difficulties still faced by driverless trucks in the near and not-too-distant future. A Bloomberg View article made some salient points regarding the difficulties that will be encountered by the need for semis to go anywhere in all types of weather. In essence, they make the case that automated trucks will not be able to deal with changing road and route conditions like a human driver.

In addition, the article points out the hurdle of capital investment costs for new trucks and the lifespan of the existing fleet which may extend the time before which intermodal freight companies would consider new vehicles. As of this writing, there is no word on whether current trucks could be retrofitted with the technology or what that cost would be.

Other articles like the recent article in The Street are far more positive about the driverless truck revolution to come. This ranges from their cargo versatility (hazardous materials), potential for roadway safety improvements, improved consistency in the supply chain, and the economic gains from increased asset utilization and lower transportation costs.

Long haul semi-tractor trailers with self-driving trucks face some serious hurdles, including a lack of consistent State regulations. A patchwork of states allowing the driverless rigs on the road will not suffice. Currently only four (4) states have regulations in place for autonomous vehicles with few commonalities in their approach (Nevada, Florida, California, and Michigan).

It is also important to note that intermodal trucking are competing with rail lines which are also looking to make the shift to full automation. In fact, rail is likely to see full automation much sooner than freight trucking due to the higher level of automation and infrastructure already in place.

Technological change is coming. The speed of change is not likely to be limited by technological developments, but by the willingness of society to adjust to the social and political challenges presented.

April Uhlenburg
April U

April has been working with Penn Intermodal’s Sales and Operations teams to educate clients on the benefits of leasing chassis for bulk liquid storage and transport since 2012.