OTR Trucking in a Self-Driving World

tags: self-driving cars

If I was an over-the-road trucker, I’d be watching Google’s self-driving car research with a careful eye, because the human behind the wheel of a 18-wheeler is a prime target for automation.

I’m no expert on the economics of freight, but I suspect that the human in the driver’s seat is the biggest expense (depending on the price of fuel) and the largest limitation of the business. And automatic driving on the interstates is less complex than trying to get a sedan through the city at rush hour.

The Washington Post asks: What will happen to truck drivers when self-driving vehicles take over?

All that raises questions about the country’s existing pool of 5.7 million truck drivers. While unmanned trucks might simply complement today’s workforce, it’s just as easy to see self-driving trucks taking over altogether.

That might mean the rise of a new kind of trucker. Instead of spending all his time behind the wheel or at rest stops, the “driver” of the future might be a technician sitting at a desk somewhere, guiding several trucks at once.

I-90 from Seattle to Boston is 3,030 miles. A driverless truck even averaging just 60 mph could make it cross-country in just over 48 hours then immediately turn around and go back.

One can even envision automated logistical centers where the trucks pull in, detach their trailer, attach a new one, and get refueled. All of it could be completely unattended and have the truck back on the road in the other direction within 20 minutes.

There’s likely no bigger potential positive economic impact to a shipping business than the ability to get rid of the driver. No salary, no health care, and no stopping. I doubt they’re talking about it publicly, but I promise you that every executive in that industry is thinking the exact same thing.

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