Self-driving cars are all the rage in popular culture – and their widespread adoption, even in a limited form, seems just years away. With that in mind, many technology leaders have been pushing boundaries of what is possible in terms of autonomous driving, and are proposing self-driving trucks as a way to alleviate projected supply chain issues, and drive efficiencies. Could autonomous trucks be the real future of shipping and hauling?

The benefits
From an American perspective, the trucking industry is facing a major shortfall of drivers that is projected to get even worse. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) has stated that the U.S. is short around 80,000 drivers as of today, with projections of being short 160,000 by 2030 This is no insignificant shortage, and a situation that having an autonomous truck could alleviate. Even a semi-autonomous vehicle could take some of the pressure and strain off of truck drivers, helping them complete their routes faster.

If we imagine a world in which the technology for these trucks is here today, the benefits and speed that they'd convey to the supply chain is significant. Efficiency is one of the most talked about positives for a self-driving truck. As discussed in a Fortune article, long-haul trips would be simplified, as regulations on driving time affect humans to a maximum of eight hours of work, self-driving trucks would be able to stay on the road for 17 hours. The implications are clear – the longer trucks are on the road, the more goods they can deliver. Patrick Penfield, professor of supply chain practice at Syracuse University stated about self-driving efficiency that "Freight will arrive at a destination faster. A human truck driver usually takes five days to go from New York to Los Angeles. It'll take an AT (autonomous truck) 48 hours."

The issues
There are unfortunately some problems with relying on autonomous trucks for solving shipping and hauling issues, especially in the near term. The technology just isn't there yet, and factors like weather can throw off current builds. This issue, and other navigation snags, isn't likely to be fully solved by the time the trucking industry hits its severe shortfall.

Something else to consider is the potential unrest that many companies may experience due to wide-scale economic anxieties from shipping workers who may feel pushed out of their jobs. It's estimated that in the U.S. alone, there are 3.5 million truck drivers, many of whom could staunchly oppose any measures taken by fleet owners and companies to move to automated solutions.

Are autonomous trucks the answer to supply chain woes?

It remains to be seen if self-driving trucks will revolutionize the shipping industry in the near future, but many are confident the change to autonomous shipping is inevitable as a slow process. To quote Andrew Culhane, the CSO of Torc Robotics in an interview with, "... this technology isn't a question of if, but when."

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