Emerging Technologies

The surprising benefits of self-driving trucks 

With more miles driven at night by robots, we will all see fewer trucks on the roads

With more miles driven at night by robots, we will all see fewer trucks on the roads Image: Florian Steciuk at Unsplash.com

Don Burnette
Co-Founder and CEO, Kodiak Robotics
Paz Eshel
Co-Founder and COO, Kodiak Robotics
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  • Autonomous trucks will be safer and more fuel-efficient, and will reduce congestion.
  • These vehicles will self-drive only on highways, maintaining a major role for human drivers on the off-highway sections of routes.
  • The benefits will be felt throughout the entire economy.

The fact that self-driving trucks did not initially capture the public imagination is perhaps not entirely shocking. After all, most people have never been inside a truck, let alone a self-driving one, and don’t give them more than a passing thought. But just because trucks aren’t foremost in most people's thoughts, doesn’t mean trucks don’t impact everyone’s lives day in and day out. Trucking is an $800 billion industry in the US. Virtually everything we buy - from our food to our phones to our furniture - reaches us via truck. Automating the movement of goods could, therefore, have at least as profound an impact on our lives as automating how we move ourselves. And people are starting to take notice.

As self-driving industry pioneers, we’re not surprised: we have been saying this for years. We founded Kodiak Robotics in 2018 with the vision of launching a freight carrier that would drive autonomously on highways, while continuing to use traditional human drivers for first- and last-mile pickup and delivery. We developed this model because our experience in the industry convinced us that today’s self-driving technology is best-suited for highway driving. While training self-driving vehicles to drive on interstate highways is complicated, hard work, it’s a much simpler, more constrained problem than driving on city streets, which have pedestrians, public transportation, bikes, pets, and other things that make cities great to live in but difficult for autonomous technology to understand and navigate.

Have you read?

As we get closer to deploying on public roads at scale, we have some good news: we think you’re going to love autonomous trucks.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First, of course, is safety. To be sure, assessing the safety of an autonomous vehicle remains a complex issue, but most people agree the question is not if robots will be safer than humans, but when. In 2018, nearly 5,000 Americans died in accidents involving commercial trucks. What’s more, estimates suggest that over 90% of road accidents were caused by human error. In the coming years, self-driving trucks will become safer than human-driven ones, and will therefore begin saving lives.

This increased safety will be felt by everyone who drives on our highways. Let’s face it: few people love driving next to an 80,000 pound truck at highway speeds. Trucks are big, hard to see around, and hard to understand. And while we get that people who see a truck driving down the highway without a driver may be concerned, over time we strongly feel such a sight will provide people with comfort rather than trepidation. Self-driving trucks will simply do a great job of sharing the road with passenger vehicles: they’ll be predictable, and a bit, well, boring. Self-driving trucks will be programmed to stay in the right lane and to never speed. They’ll never weave in and out of traffic, text and drive, or drive drunk, distracted, or drowsy.

Second, self-driving trucks will free the freight industry from its biggest constraint - the struggle against sleep. Truckers are in a literal race against time to reach their destinations before their bodies and/or the law say they need to take a rest. Freed from these restrictions, however, self-driving trucks will have an entirely different set of incentives - they won’t need to speed or drive through the middle of town at rush hour to make sure they get home before they hit their physical or legal limit. These differences will make our freight system safer, more efficient, and - perhaps counterintuitively - more human-centric.

Without the need for driver rest breaks, self-driving trucks will be able to operate nearly all day, every day. Research by PWC suggests that self-driving trucks will drive an average of 78% of the time, in comparison to an average of just 29% today. What’s more, self-driving trucks will be able to plan their routes to avoid driving through cities during peak hours; robots don’t mind being on the road at 3am instead of 3pm. This will help improve traffic, since heavy-duty trucks are a major reason for congestion on our roads. With fewer urban miles driven at rush hour and more driven in the middle of the night, people will actually see fewer trucks in their daily lives.

Automation could almost halve costs for the logistics sector within the next decade
Automation could almost halve costs for the logistics sector within the next decade Image: PwC

There will be less visible but still incredibly important benefits of autonomy as well. Preliminary research suggests that self-driving trucks will drive more efficiently than humans, making them more environmentally friendly. Keeping to the speed limit will make a big difference: vehicles average 17% lower efficiency at 70 mph vs. 55 mph. Additionally, since speeding trucks are a major cause of roadway deterioration, driving trucks at relatively low speeds will greatly reduce wear-and-tear on the roads and free up much-needed maintenance funds for other uses.

Lastly, while a lot of apocalyptic (and unfounded) pieces have been written about how self-driving trucks will destroy jobs, many in the trucking industry think automation will be good for truckers. While there are certainly many people who love being long-haul truckers, the fact is that driving a truck 11 hours a day is difficult work that keeps truckers away from their families for days or weeks at a time and has deleterious effects on driver health. It’s no accident that the trucking industry faces a massive driver shortage - the American Trucking Associations estimate that the industry is short by 60,800 drivers, a number they estimate will rise to more than 160,000 by 2028. Because self-driving trucks will likely focus primarily on highway routes, there will still be a large (and increased) need for drivers who can do first-mile pickups and last-mile deliveries within complex urban environments. These jobs will likely be more appealing to potential drivers who are interested in the profession but can’t make the lifestyle work for their families. The result will be an industry that works a little bit better for its workers.

Over the long run, our entire freight logistics chain will begin to adapt, adjusting to the benefits of autonomy in ways that are hard to imagine today. To be sure, the changes won’t be without disruption, for truckers and for the industries that serve truckers. But for most people, the advent of self-driving trucks will be a benefit that they’ll feel every day, with every minute they save in traffic or nickel they save on a gallon of milk. There are exciting times ahead for the trucking industry, and we are thrilled to help make them happen.

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Related topics:
Emerging TechnologiesSupply Chains and TransportationJobs and the Future of WorkFourth Industrial Revolution
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