In May 2021, a truck made by California-based start-up TuSimple left Arizona with a cargo of fresh watermelons. Its destination was Oklahoma City, 951 miles (1,530 km) away – a journey that would normally take 24 hours. This time, however, the watermelons arrived just 14 hours later.
The key to such a massive time saving was the autonomous driving technology on board. While a human driver took care of the pick-up and delivery, much of the test journey was navigated by computer, eliminating the need for rest stops.
It’s the latest eyecatching development in what is rapidly becoming a hotly contested field. Autonomous cars may have captured the headlines in recent years, but progress has failed to match initial expectations. Autonomous trucks could soon overtake them.
A major reason for this is that the technology could actually be easier to master. Driverless cars have to be able to safely take passengers anywhere, from busy city streets to narrow country roads. There are a huge variety of scenarios and potential obstacles to compute. Trucks, on the other hand, spend the majority of their time cruising on wide-open motorways, with little else to worry about than other vehicles.
For the time being, autonomous truck journeys are conducted with human drivers on board as a safety back-up. McKinsey doesn’t expect level five, or ‘full’ autonomy, for trucks to be commercially ready until 2027, but numerous players expect to start mass-producing vehicles with level four autonomy in the next two to three years. This means the autonomous system can perform all driving tasks but only under certain conditions.
Autonomous trucks: The advantages
The potential benefits of self-driving trucks are significant. In addition to reduced driving times, they could also bring economic and operational gains for companies across the supply chain. Deloitte says they could reduce per-mile costs by 30% or more by minimising or even eliminating human involvement. The ability to operate without restrictions on daily driving time would increase delivery capacity and help to address the growing demand for faster and more predictable shipping, the consultancy says in a February 2021 report. This becomes even more important in light of a recent debate around truck driver shortages.
Autonomous trucks could also be safer. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, “Automated vehicles’ potential to save lives and reduce injuries is rooted in one critical and tragic fact: 94% of serious crashes are due to human error.”
Jostling for a piece of the action are a bunch of new partnerships between tech-driven start-ups and established manufacturers. TuSimple, for example, which recently filed for an $8.5-billion IPO, is working with Volkswagen’s trucking unit Traton; Waymo, Google’s former self-driving project, has signed a deal with Daimler; and Aurora is partnering with Volvo Trucks.
With level five autonomy still some way off, most of these companies are currently pursuing a hub-focused model. That means, much like TuSimple’s recent watermelon trip, human drivers would handle the pickup and drop off at terminals near major highways. Everything in between would be driven by the truck’s on-board computer.
Plenty of hurdles still to clear
So far, so promising. But, much like with autonomous cars, there are numerous challenges still to be overcome. Some are the same, such as public acceptance, cybersecurity and how to handle difficult-to-predict ‘edge’ cases like dealing with emergency services or adverse weather conditions. Regulations on these issues vary from country to country – one reason why so much of the current focus is on the United States, where some states have a more liberal approach.
Other hurdles are unique to trucks, though. Because of their greater stopping distances, self-driving trucks need to ‘see’ much further ahead than cars do, for example. A fully loaded 18-wheel truck can weigh 40 tonnes – the consequences of an accident are likely to be much, much higher than with a car.
The potential impact on logistics
With e-commerce booming and both retailers and deliverers under pressure to deliver parcels as quickly as possible, self-driving trucks could have a major impact on the logistics sector. As Deloitte’s report points out – and test journeys have shown – autonomous trucks can dramatically increase one-day transit distances because the driver is not constrained to hours of service. “This would mean retailers would need fewer facilities and lower inventory,” the report states.
Hermes UK recently agreed to partner with Ford’s European Self-Driving Vehicle Research Programme to explore how Hermes couriers could work alongside autonomous vehicles, as well as how other road users interact with an apparently driverless delivery van. “We’re excited to collaborate with Ford on this proof of concept trial, which is all about understanding the potential for autonomous vehicles and if they have a role in delivery in the longer-term future,” said Lynsey Aston, Head of Product, Innovation and Onboarding at Hermes UK.