In 2016, the first autonomous truck in America completed a 120-mile trip without incident. Even though driverless trucks had been in development for years, this marked the start of a new era for the trucking industry – a time where autonomous vehicles were actually a reality. This also opened up a lot of questions, primarily about how truck drivers would be affected. Would they be completely replaced by these vehicles, or would there just be fewer jobs to choose from? However, there’s a lot more to the discussion than that. For example, there’s the fact that fully self-driving trucks don’t actually exist yet – the autonomous truck in 2016 benefitted from the assistance of a professional driver to enter and exit the highway.
To complicate matters, most news outlets tend to only report on the most sensational headlines regarding driverless trucks. Sites like Truck Driver News present a more well-rounded perspective, which is why many truckers opt for industry-specific sources when learning about new developments.
The potential impact of driverless trucks
When discussing the advent of self-driving trucks, a lot of people like to focus on the potential impact that they could have on the industry. For example, they mention how many millions of people are employed as drivers in the trucking industry, and then wonder how it would affect unemployment rates if driverless trucks were implemented across the entire industry.
This is an interesting question to pose, but it’s one that won’t ever have to be answered. For one thing, the trucking industry wouldn’t replace all of its drivers overnight; that just isn’t feasible. There would be time for both the industry and drivers to adjust as the gradual shift to driverless technology happened. For another thing, many truck driving jobs aren’t even at risk of being replaced. Because these jobs involve making local deliveries or doing other complex driving jobs, driverless trucks that are built for long-haul journeys don’t threaten them.
That being said, the way forward for self-driving trucks is anything but simple. This technology has the potential to completely transform the trucking industry, but it faces a few obstacles before that can happen.
Unexpected expenses and safety factors
Even though driverless trucks will save trucking companies the cost of the drivers’ salaries, they may still entail other expenses. One of the main unknowns is the cost of insurance, and fees could be quite high. The reason for this is that the long-term safety ratings of driverless trucks are unknown. Insurance companies bank on their own ability to estimate risk, and if they can’t estimate the risk, they’ll err on the side of caution.
Because of this, transportation and shipping insurance could see steep price hikes for autonomous vehicles – and for the average driver. If insurance companies decide that driverless trucks present a risk for not only themselves, but also for other vehicles, they could decide that everyone on the road has to pay extra for it.
That being said, autonomous trucks will eventually establish a safety record. Even if the worst happens and there’s an accident involving one of these vehicles, the technology will continue to improve and grow safer. As this happens, insurance rates should adjust accordingly.
Lack of social acceptance
Truck drivers are worried about the rise of autonomous trucks, but the average driver may be even more worried about them. This is because it’s just plain unnerving to drive past several tons of metal on wheels, and realize that there’s nobody in control of all that mass. Even if this doesn’t lead to increased accidents, it likely will result in protests against the technology. Some people strongly support autonomous vehicles, but others just as strongly oppose them. Just look at the outcry that happened when Tesla released its first self-driving cars – and those weren’t even fully autonomous! If enough people decided to boycott businesses that use driverless trucks, this could force trucking companies to reconsider or slow down their move towards this technology.
Whatever happens, it will boil down to making the best financial choice. It’s estimated that driverless trucks will be cheaper than paying drivers’ salaries, but if trucking companies start losing their customer bases because of that choice, they might change their minds.
Autonomous trucks aren’t quite autonomous enough
Despite all the media hype, fully driverless trucks aren’t actually being used; in fact, they’ve barely even been tested in simulated settings. There are five levels of autonomous vehicles, with 0 representing no autonomy, and 5 representing the ability to complete any driving task in any scenario. As of 2023, only level 4 vehicles have gotten limited time on American highways; these trucks can complete all driving tasks, but only in limited situations. In other words, they can handle themselves on highways, but not many other places.
This is a significant barrier for driverless trucks. Even though the popular image of trucking involves going for miles and miles down endless highways, that only represents a portion of the actual job. Some truck drivers only operate in urban areas, for instance. Most of them start and end their trips maneuvering in and out of ports, distribution hubs, warehouse complexes, and more. Then there are factors like rough weather conditions, uneven roads, and potential mechanical failures that a driverless truck could detect, but not fix. Between one thing and another, the trucking industry is still several years away from implementing fully autonomous trucks.
Even though many people see autonomous trucks as a negative development, the same thing has been said of countless emerging technologies. Plus, it certainly doesn’t help that there’s so much sensationalism around the idea that truck drivers will be replaced by these vehicles. While this is sure to happen, there could also be positive effects in other areas. As the trucking industry saves money, shipping costs could go down, which will lower the prices of many different products. Driverless trucks could also help address the driver shortage, which has put a strain on supply chains across the country. It still isn’t known how self-driving trucks will change the industry, but there’s no doubt that they’ll have a big impact.