With the trucking industry struggling to cope with chronic driver shortages and increasingly strict regulations, is road transportation being “driven” toward a future that doesn’t involve humans?
In 10 years, will a robot be a driver’s co-pilot on a long haul? Will self-driving trucks take over the highways? How will we track moving assets like trucks and in-transit inventory without human assistance?
Questions and predictions about the impact of autonomous vehicles on the truck driving profession abound. Initial thoughts assumed that self-driving trucks would eliminate truck drivers’ jobs entirely – followed by other areas of transportation – but many experts now believe jobs won’t be eliminated, simply transformed.
The Future of Autonomous Tech in Self-Driving Trucks
The trucking industry moves approximately two-thirds of all goods shipped in the United States. Nearly 4 million heavy-duty trucks operate in the United States alone. Will autonomous trucks (ATs), vehicles that drive without human involvement, replace American fleets?
According to many experts, not anytime soon.
The transition to autonomy will most likely be a gradual change. Much of the technology required to put self-driving vehicles on the road is still in development or testing stages. Once ready, government overseers will still need time to create regulations for actual road use. In addition, truck manufacturers will need time to design, modify and manufacture hauling vehicles for autonomous operation.
What are these technologies? Current predictions about the future of autonomous truck driving usually include the following:
- Advanced driver-assisted technologies: Truck manufacturers will likely follow a gradual pathway toward higher levels of automation, adding automated steering, more advanced software, and more sensors to support the truck driver.
- Transfer-hub: Under this model, autonomous trucks will haul freight across long distances on interstate routes, from exit to exit. Drivers would take over more complex driving tasks on non-interstate roads.
- Teleoperation: Some experts predict self-driving vehicles will be monitored by remote drivers in an office or similar setting. Teleoperation may coincide with asset tracking for these trucks, seamlessly integrating fixed asset tracking software, RFID, or in-transit inventory tracking solutions.
- Platooning: In the platooning model, two or more trucks travel in tight convoys, synchronizing braking and cruise control through communications technology. Some experts predict “constrained platooning” will arrive on U.S. roads as the first wave. Initially, the trucks likely will operate with drivers in the cab who can take over as needed for all non-interstate highway driving.
- Autonomous driving: The final wave will have no drivers at all. This wave is predicted to begin after 2027. Major auto manufacturers and tech giants are already deep into autonomous driving tests, such as Tesla, Google and Uber, among others.
Tracking Moving Assets and Inventory
One of the big questions for autonomous truck fleets is how supply chain companies will track these vehicles if human involvement is removed from the equation. Will this mean that “robot trucks” are in greater danger of becoming lost in the shuffle, particularly in large enterprise shipping operations?
First, humans will likely remain involved in trucking and transportation in one form or another, even if through remote oversight.
Second, powerful fixed asset tracking solutions already exist today that are capable of tracking movements for large enterprises, including vehicles, equipment, parts, tools, consignment or vendor managed inventory (VMI), and provide options for proof of delivery with signature confirmation as well.
In addition, fixed asset tracking software can be expanded to cover MRO processes. Tracking spare parts, consumables and tools with a high level of control and real-time visibility for maintenance, repair and overhaul can help reduce overhead costs while driving efficiency. The same system that tracks the trucks and the loads they carry can be brought together into the same ecosystem.
Using inventory and asset management technology for shipping, logistics and trucks mean that drivers don’t have to track this data by hand, using paper logs or manual data entry. Instead, movements and transactions are automated. Therefore, less involvement from humans-directed activities in trucking and transportation will have minimal impact on your company’s ability to track resources.
Unlike, autonomous trucking, which remains a near-future development for the transportation sector, real-time fixed asset tracking software is a living reality that exists today.
The Role of Human Truck Drivers in Autonomous Trucking
What impact will the arrival of autonomous trucks have on the approximately 2 million drivers? Experts disagree about the extent of the impact, but all agree that the future for truck drivers will change significantly. Most also agree that some level of human labor will still be required in the trucking industry.
While autonomous trucks are not likely to replace human drivers entirely, new technologies will improve the truck driving profession. This is especially important as the availability of truck drivers continues to dwindle. Automation will expand existing freight-hauling capacity, help truck drivers improve productivity, and convert long-haul jobs into short-haul jobs. Meanwhile, management software for tracking inventory and fixed assets on the road will continue to increase in importance as manual tracking processes are phased out.
For many years to come, humans still will drive trucks for short-haul jobs or work as remote operators. Traditional truck driving jobs likely will shift toward local routes, allowing drivers more time at home and potentially fueling job growth.
The American Trucking Associations estimates companies currently have a shortage of about 60,000 drivers, especially on long-haul trips. Since autonomous trucks first will take on long-haul routes, many of the jobs that will be filled by the autonomous trucks currently are unoccupied. Some truck driver jobs may evolve into more technical roles since people will need to maintain the technology infrastructure required by autonomous trucks.
What does future life on the road look like for truck drivers? No one knows, of course. What is certain, though, is that such a disruptive technology will bring more changes. Even if autonomous trucking takes another decade to become a reality, transportation and logistics enterprises can prepare the way with future-proofing technologies like fixed asset tracking and mobile inventory management software.