My Take: How Autonomous Trucks Will Impact Shippers

autonomous trucksWhether you’re a carrier or a shipper, autonomous trucks (ATs) are in our industry’s future – and are coming at us quickly! But the typical benefits we hear about – safety, efficiency, the solution to driver shortages – mostly pertain to the carrier side. So what about shippers? How much will ATs change the day-to-day operations of a shipper?

I think shippers have been somewhat forgotten in the whole discussion around autonomous trucks, yet they stand to be effected in several interesting ways. Here are my predictions around how ATs will impact shippers.

Autonomous trucks in; live drivers out

As autonomous trucks are proven to be safer and more reliable, I predict that within 10 years there will be laws restricting live drivers.  This could include AT-only lanes, roads, or highways; or the length of hauls requiring ATs. I also believe that once ATs are accepted as a safer alternative to a live driver, these laws and regulations will evolve very rapidly.

New mode considerations

In North America, we have lots of modes – air, parcel, LTL, TL, intermodal, rail – and they all have their unique differentiators, costs, and requirements for execution.  If we simply think of autonomous trucks as another mode, it can help us predict how shippers will use ATs to execute.

Essentially, I think ATs will initially be similar to an intermodal move. In intermodal, we have dray-rail-dray, so with autonomous trucks we may have dray-AT-dray, where the dray is done by live drivers: The driver picks up, drops to an autonomous truck point that delivers to another autonomous truck point, and then a live driver does the final delivery.

Route execution and your TMS

Rail has the cost advantage for long haul in terms of cost per ton/mile, plus one could argue that rail is mostly autonomous already. But I’d argue trucks give better service and that from a shipper’s perspective, ATs will work very similar to how you route intermodal today. For instance, if your transportation management system (TMS) can handle a three-legged move with intermodal and pay three different parties already, ATs will not introduce much more complexity and can be treated very similar.

Another option for long hauls is to let the autonomous truck do the long haul but keep a driver in the cab for pickup and delivery. In this scenario, the autonomous truck is helping augment the driver (and if this transpires, we will need to update our DOT driver hours of services laws).

So in the end, l don’t think the shift to ATs will require any change in execution from a shipper’s perspective: The shipper’s TMS will still need to be able to adjust transit/drive-time calculations when routing, but this will look similar to a team driver. And the TMS will need the ability to vary driver hours of operation.

Further into the future

Looking farther down the road, I see autonomous trucks handling in-city pickup and delivery.  And when that’s the case, we won’t see any difference compared with how a live driver operates today. In other words, does a shipper really care if it’s an autonomous truck or a live driver? No, because shippers select the mode and carrier based on cost and service, but the execution will still be through the carrier’s general system.

Perhaps then we can get TL carriers to receive tenders other than by email or a phone call! (I don’t have high hopes).

In the end, I believe shippers will tender the same for an autonomous truck as they will for a live driver. Your TMS won’t care if it’s a live driver or an autonomous truck either…although with machine learning and AI, perhaps the TMS will chose autonomous trucks because of a bias for its own kind!

So when will this all happen? The timing on the widespread roll-out of autonomous trucks hinges on when they cost less and are at least as reliable as a live driver. And when ATs become the preference for shippers – and as long as the TMS has a modern design and flexible capabilities – they can leverage autonomous trucks the same way that they rely on other modes today.

JP Wiggins is co-founder and vice president of logistics at 3Gtms, a global provider of Tier 1 transportation management software. There, he manages channels and partnerships. Previously, JP was co-founder and senior vice president of logistics for Global Logistics Technologies (G-Log); co-founder and vice president of product management at dx/dt; and vice president of logistics at Weseley Software.

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