AKE’S TAKE: When Will We See Driverless Big Rigs?

By | January 10, 2019

The question I get asked the most by people inside, and outside, the industry is: When will there be driverless trucks on the highways?

This, of course, is a difficult question because it not only involves adaptation to technology, but a host of other complicated factors as well.

But my answer is this:

You will see driverless trucks as soon as the general population accepts driverless cars. When people are comfortable riding in a driverless car, then they will not object to a fully-loaded, driverless tractor-trailer behind them on the highway.

I realize this is not a specific answer but providing an exact year at this point amounts to SWAG. It is difficult to calculate an adoption rate curve because, in addition to economics, there are cultural, political, and other issues to resolve.

I believe most people are currently fearful of self-driving cars. This fear will, of course, be reduced by all the “self-adjusting/correcting” options (braking, parking, lane-assist, speed-adjust, etc.) available on newer vehicles. In addition, there will be public service campaigns trumpeting the increase in safety provided by self-driving cars. Reduction in accidents, deaths, and drunk drivers will be the main benefits. Improved traffic flow is also an expected plus.

And traffic safety is of growing importance as millions of baby-boomers with diminishing skills share the road with the texting Millennials. Throw in increased marijuana legalization, and we all may end up demanding self-driving cars.

Personally, I know I will be extremely distressed the first time I am in a driverless car. I have never even used cruise control, because I must always be in total control of my vehicle. However, I do look forward to the day when I summon a car to take me to my doctor’s office. A robot will load me in the vehicle and another robot will lift me out. If I can adapt to this, I think other’s in my generation will also.

But the final push for self-driving cars may come from insurance companies. If you drive your car, your rates are $10,000 a year, but they fall to $1,000 if the car drives itself. “This is America, so it is your choice. We are not telling you what to do, but…”

Why is public opinion so important? Because Congress is not going to approve the use of driverless trucks if people are fearful. It may take years to even write the regulations. Of course if one political party writes them, they will be too lax, and if it is the other party, they will be too tight. But there will be extensive debates and lobbyists promoting various interests, etc.

You can argue that the financial incentive for driverless trucks is so significant it will overrun all the obstructions and objections: “It is so obvious that they have to pass it!” Yes, and the government is working so well, it is currently shut down. And I will refer you back to the history of legislation on freight weight and trailer size. “When is that 33-foot trailer legislation going to pass?”

Now, you can also argue that the truck will always need a “driver,” but that is based on today’s technology and logistics framework. Twenty years from now technological improvements in automation, robotics, and logistics adaptation may change everything. Maybe then you will just need an “attendant” to ride in the vehicle for emergencies. This could even spark a new form of ride sharing. “Ride in the truck for free from Kansas City to Memphis and call us if anything goes wrong.”

I do agree with those who say “platooning” will come first. This involves two or more trucks connected by automated driving technology traveling down the highway in a line, separated by a close, set distance from each other. Successful platooning will also help people to accept the self-driving truck concept. However, this still will need to be legislated, with regulations, etc.

And that’s why it is difficult to put a timetable on it. If you forced me to place a bet, maybe 2027. But driverless trucks will remain a hot topic of discussion until it ultimately happens. As I said, it is the topic I am asked about the most. I was actually giving my opinion on the subject to an anesthesiologist as he waited for me to go under before a recent medical procedure. So, it has to be an important subject because if something went disastrously wrong, those would have been my final words!

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About Don Ake

Don has more than 20 years of experience in the transportation industry, including 16 years with industry supplier Hendrickson International. Don has a very strong forecasting and market analysis background. While at Hendrickson Don developed forecasting models, methods and processes to accurately forecast Truck and Trailer builds and product demand. Don wrote an industry economic newsletter and gained a reputation as a top industry analyst. His industry supplier background provides a "customer perspective" now that he is with FTR.