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Freightwaves Freight Intel: Autonomous trucking will be an evolution not a revolution

Truck drivers’ jobs are safe (for now) as the industry transitions to a semi-autonomous world.

Will driverless trucks be cruising down U.S. highways en masse anytime soon? The short answer is “no.”

This conclusion comes from The State of the Autonomous Trucking Industry: “Evolution not Revolution” report, which is available to FreightWaves SONAR subscribers on the SONAR platform.

The staff of the FreightWaves Freight Intel Group believe that a fully autonomous (no human operation; Level 4 or 5) future for trucking is more than a decade away and more likely 20 to 30 years away. Viewed in that light, the frequent media refrain that forecasts the imminent displacement of millions of truck driver jobs is mostly sensational clickbait.

Obstacles to autonomous technology

However, that forecast is not because exciting things aren’t happening and groundbreaking autonomous technology doesn’t currently exist – it mostly does in early stages or is on the horizon. Rather, it hinges more on a prolonged regulatory and adoption curve as the industry moves from a venture capital-backed proof-of-concept stage to commercial viability.

The heavily fragmented nature of the trucking industry will likely serve as a meaningful obstacle to adoption as well; 91 percent of fleets in the U.S. have eight trucks or fewer. A retrofit for an autonomous system can often run $50,000 to $100,000 (or more). This is beyond the financial means of most small fleets. Therefore, in order to achieve widespread autonomous trucking (“AT”) adoption, both truckers and shippers will need to see a high probability, concrete path to a positive return on investment (ROI). Given the aforementioned cost for an autonomous system, alongside limited fuel savings and the fact that the brunt of savings will have to come in the form of removing drivers from the cab, the industry is not there yet. There is also the question of legality for AT, which is not yet allowed in most states (currently approved for operations in six to seven and for testing in 15 to 20).

The future of autonomous trucking

Nevertheless, FreightWaves predicts that semi-autonomous trucks (defined as Level 2 or 3) will begin to make significant strides over the coming years in certain geographies (think wide-open lanes in rural Arizona with bright blue skies and straightaways) and on heavily trafficked long-haul lanes. Whether in the form of autonomous platooning or increasing driver assistance (i.e. autonomous lane keeping, cruise control, braking, etc.), semi-autonomy is here to stay and will become more and more commonplace in newbuilds from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

There is no doubt that fully autonomous trucks, whenever they arrive, will likely prove to be a devastating deflationary force that results in a massive wave of human truck drivers losing their jobs. (There are currently about two million truck drivers in the U.S. and that number is increasing; of those, about 800,000 are long-haul truckers). 

But it won’t just be truck drivers who need to worry about their livelihoods 20 years from now; automation, artificial intelligence and robotics will be a major threat to some employees in nearly every industry in the U.S. For carriers and shippers, on the other hand, this outcome is likely to represent a step-function higher in profitability.

Until that day, the evolution from semi-autonomy to a fully autonomous industry may just mean a higher quality of life for truckers as the long-term number of unfilled trucker positions in the U.S. continues unabated. (There are currently 50,000 unfilled positions for truck drivers; the forecast is that by 2025, unfilled positions may reach 200,000 drivers.)

Rather than the imminent doomsday scenario coming to pass, truckers will remain in the driver’s seat and begin to transfer many of the monotonous, dangerous and grueling tasks to computers – but not the whole operation. Truckers will also be needed for the foreseeable future to carry out first- and last-mile duties (where the logistical complexities of autonomy are exponentially higher), as well as to problem-solve, for basic truck maintenance and to potentially help operate the autonomous systems.

In the FreightWaves report, the industry is analyzed in depth from a high level, breaking down all the major issues at hand, as well as outlining the top players and their current strategies across OEMs, hardware and software. Those interested in a primer on autonomous trucking would be well-served by reading this report.

The FreightWaves Freight Intel Group is comprised of a number of FreightWaves’ Market Experts and research staff. The Group is producing white papers and research on topics of interest to those in the freight, transportation, logistics and supply chain ecosystems. As topics dictate, they will be supplemented by academic and industry experts with specific knowledge and/or expertise. FreightWaves SONAR subscribers have full access to the The State of the Autonomous Trucking Industry: “Evolution not Revolution” report, as well as all other reports written by the FreightWaves Freight Intel Group. The report can be found on the SONAR platform.

In addition, SONAR subscribers or others interested in FreightWaves’ research should contact Kevin Hill at khill@freightwaves.com or Seth Holm sholm@freightwaves.com.

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Seth Holm

Seth Holm is a Senior Research Analyst for the Freight Intel Group at Freightwaves, which publishes proprietary research on all things transports and logistics. Most recently, Seth spent 9 years as an analyst covering consumer and technology, media and telecom (TMT) stocks at a hedge fund. Prior to that, he was as an analyst at a high net worth wealth advisory firm. Seth is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a major in Finance.

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