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Future of Automation in the U.S. Trucking Industry

With the proliferation of e-commerce, U.S. trucking has seen exponential growth in the past few years. The U.S. Trucking industry is one of the largest globally that moves over 70% of U.S. freight by weight and employs more than 3.5 million people as truck drivers. The sector has immense potential for innovation and automation that will continue driving the growth of the industry. However, automation in the industry has primarily been perceived as a threat. And with the recent developments of autonomous vehicles catching up the pace, the threat seems to be real. But the question remains, will automation change the entire course of the industry? Will it completely wipe out the role of humans in moving goods from one place to another?

What do we mean by Automation in Trucking?

With redefining traditional models of business, digitization and technological advances have caught up pace within the industry. Automation of the industry doesn’t limit to autonomous vehicles. It extends to the automation of the freight and information flow, automation of the infrastructure, and process management.

Automation of Infrastructure further requires the development of roadways, terminals, distribution centers, and warehouses.

Automation of Infrastructure further requires the development of roadways, terminals, distribution centers, and warehouses. It necessitates the use of advanced sensors to monitor and enable effective traffic management systems to optimize capacity. Similarly, smart roads with sensors and data assimilating technology can detect collision points and warn nearby drivers to avoid road accidents.

Advanced robotics in warehousing assist the movement of the goods as well as improve material handling.

Automation projects of warehouses using robots to pick and sort, indoor drones, or automated forklifts are a reality now. Advanced robotics in warehousing assist the movement of the goods as well as improve material handling. Advanced automated storage/retrieval systems (AS/RS) enable the storage of goods in large racks, with robotic shuttles moving in three dimensions on rails attached to the structure. For assisting picking and sorting functions, robotic arms embedded with sensors are used. These help in grasping the objects based on shape and size. Advanced conveyor systems use scanners that can read bar codes to determine appropriate action. Additionally, automatic palletizers also use robotic arms to build the pallets from individual units and employ advanced analytics to find optimal placement for each box.

The need for advanced analytics has long been stressed to enable businesses with much-needed intelligence to build resilient supply chains.

Automation of freight and information flow requires the use of advanced technologies that enable real-time tracking of shipments and reporting of events. The need for advanced analytics has long been stressed to enable businesses with much-needed intelligence to build resilient supply chains. Digitization in trucking has already started driving the much-needed change.TMS and WMS integrated with ERP and the use of EDI for a seamless flow of information between stakeholders is a common practice. Drivers now use electronic logging devices to record their daily logs and upload digital documents to transmit critical shipment documents easily.

Autonomous Trucks

A McKinsey Study states that autonomous trucks alone can reduce the operating costs by approximately 45% that could generate savings between $85 billion to $125 billion. With the onset of the recent global crisis, most purchases have seen a significant shift towards online e-commerce portals, and the trend is likely to continue.

The Study further suggests that automation in the industry is going to happen in phases. The first phase will emphasize constrained platooning, followed by a phase that will exercise constrained autonomy which will finally pave the way for full autonomy.

Platooning is a technique where a leading truck connects with a convoy of trucks driven by drivers that allow safe operation in proximity and enhance fuel efficiency. However, over the years, the convoys of such trucks will utilize algorithms to connect with the leading truck, where only the leading truck will have a driver maneuvering it while the rest of the convoy follows suit. Such driverless platooning will reduce the total cost of ownership by 10%.

Fully autonomous trucks with no drivers behind the wheels will be the ultimate automation phase in the industry, which is still approximately ten years ahead.

Constrained autonomy will further have driverless trucks plying through the interstate highways without a platoon depending on weather and visibility conditions and smart infrastructural developments that allow communication with traffic lights and provide real-time traffic congestion inputs.The drivers can access the trucks at the interstate exit and then drive them to the destination. Smart infrastructural development is necessary to assist the adoption of automation to this extent. Fully autonomous trucks with no drivers behind the wheels will be the ultimate automation phase in the industry, which is still approximately ten years ahead.

However, adopting autonomous trucking at a large scale is a long term initiative and will take years. Presently, several companies are testing the technology, and companies like TuSimple, Otto, Uber, and Tesla are at the forefront driving the desired change.

Will Autonomous vehicles eliminate the need for truck drivers?

With automation looming over the industry and without understanding its implications in the coming years, it is easy to speculate that automation might end up eating a large chunk of U.S. trucking jobs. It has also been said that self-driving trucks may end up eliminating 2-3 million trucking jobs. But the truth is that humans can never really be completely wiped out of the industry. The nature of trucking jobs may change over the coming years. The nearest parallel drawn to such automation in the industry is that of a pilots’ role in flying aircraft. Similarly, trained truck drivers will be required to enable automation and continue adopting advanced technologies.

The self-driving trucks may automate the driving function, but the other services can’t be automated.

Truck drivers have plenty of other roles, such as inspecting the vehicles, securing cargo, maintaining logs, and customer service. The self-driving trucks may automate the driving function, but the other services can’t be automated. Some tasks such as checking for unbalanced loads, low tires, and other precautionary prompts can all be automated using sensors, but a driver would still be required to fix them.

The full autonomy of the vehicles is, again, something that depends on several factors. Technology, economy, government regulation, and infrastructural developments are the major factors that will drive the rate of adoption. Autonomous trucks are expensive, and the large trucking companies’ willingness to make such significant initial investments will also impact the adoption. Although the U.S. regulatory framework has been conducive, the scope of responsibility for an autonomous vehicle has less legal precedent, causing concerns for OEMs, owners, operators, and even nearby drivers. Additionally, the need for smart infrastructure is mandatory for a smooth adoption of autonomous technologies. The American Trucking Associations predicts that the driver shortage could increase to 174,000 by 2026. Thus, there is an apparent demand for more trained truck drivers.

The changes in hours-of-service regulations and the need for electronic logging devices have limited the drivers’ working hours. The limiting supply of driver hours and decreasing capacity have serious implications for the industry. Autonomous vehicles are most likely to be deployed for long haul trips that witness the maximum driver shortages. Therefore self-driving trucks are mostly going to fill for the unoccupied jobs. Thus, increased requirements of trained drivers will eventually drive the growth of trucking jobs in the future.

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