Most fleets will not survive the driverless truck revolution

Fleet owners are looking forward to using driverless trucks to lower cost. They end up getting more than they asked for. 

Fleet owners are looking forward to using driverless trucks to lower cost. They end up getting more than they asked for. 

There has been a ton of press around the impact of drivers being replaced by robotic drone-trucks and put out of work. The assumption that most people make is that the asset-based carriers want fully-autonomous trucks and would do anything to find a way to operate their fleets without drivers. This thinking might end up getting them killed. Not personally, but their companies.

The fact remains that the driver is what keeps most of the fleets in business. Without the driver, the industry would have already consolidated and the bigger companies would have massive marketshare. After all, they enjoy much lower procurement costs, denser freight networks, and higher rates. The mega-fleets have all the advantages, but combined, the top 10 truckload carriers only represent around 12% of the for-hire market. This is entirely to do with the fact that hiring and retaining drivers is so hard. And expensive. But it also gives them an effective moat around their businesses.

The moment you eliminate drivers and the market becomes an automated dispatch and yield management network, you will see massive capital investments made by industry outsiders. Armed with lots of cash and data science teams, these new market entrants will use their significant capital resources and machine learning algos to automate most, if not all, of the day-to-day dispatch and yield optimization decisions. The fleet owner incumbants that have built their entire models around driver retention and recruiting will find themselves under resourced in data science and marketing - two things that Silicon Valley companies have major edges in.

The other threat to fleets might come from within.

Some of the OEMs have explored taking over more of the freight management processes and even Volvo has made investments in this area through its Volvo Venture fund. One of the investments they made was in digital broker Cargomatic. Daimler is also exploring similar ideas, although they seem to have approached this process more cautiously than their Swedish competitor. If the OEMs control the technology and the production of autonomous vehicles, they might end up keeping the technology for their own use.  

The other likely source of competition will come from the large 3PLs and the digital brokers that end up surviving a bubble-burst. Sophisticated 3PLs are much better at freight solicitation, customer development, marketing, and pricing management than the fleets. They also have made significant investments in quants that are developing machine learning algos to provide faster freight solicitation and price discovery. Fleets are too busy in ensuring their trucks are seated and running to be have the resources or time to focus on the types of revolutionary concepts you will find in some of the tech-enabled brokerages. 

Even without this shake-out happening, some 3PLs have been exploring the concept of “gray trailer pools.” The idea is for the 3PL to own a set of trailers (or partner with a leasing company to do so) and offer shippers dropped trailers, much like a traditional asset-based fleet.

The other threat that potentially could happen is the large shippers end up buying their own trucks and running autonomous drone fleets themselves. You can bet that shippers with dedicated fleets will be the first to consider it. After all, if a drone truck costs 70% less than a driver truck, then they could run the trucks one-way loaded and the backhaul completely empty and be better off. If this happens and the largest shippers end up using their vast balance sheets and purchasing power to get a jump on the for-hire fleets, it might hurt those carriers in their ability to buy the autonomous technology fast enough to fend off emerging threats.

Regardless of what happens, autonomous trucks will end up causing the biggest market shakeout in history.