Autonomous trucks are coming. But they will get here faster if states and the federal government invest in infrastructure to promote their development. Investments could include a lane on the highway that is restricted to autonomous trucks. The investments might also include special parking lots built near exits on the interstate where drivers take autonomous trucks from a regional warehouse, get out, and push the go button freeing the truck to drive autonomously to another parking lot near an interstate exit where a driver is waiting to catch the truck. The investments could even include incentives for telecommunications companies to improve the cellular coverage along certain interstates or the placement of different types of sensors along a road that communicate directly with autonomous trucks.
Should states make these investments? The tradeoffs involve truck driving jobs lost, warehousing jobs won, public safety, and consumer prices. The politics won’t be easy, particularly after the inevitable traffic accidents occur and deaths result.
From a technology perspective, insiders I’ve talked to believe autonomous trucks on the highway will be technologically feasible in three years. Starsky Robotics has already tested driverless trucks in Florida, has more tests scheduled next year, and is shooting to have them commercially deployed in two years.
Autonomous Trucks and Safety
There are states that currently appear very open to driverless trucks from a regulatory perspective – particularly Florida and Texas – but what happens after that inevitable first accident caused by an autonomous truck that kills a car driver and the passengers? The autonomous truck industry will be in a much stronger position if they can argue that autonomous trucks are safer than trucks driven by humans. In the longer run autonomous trucks will be safer!
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration measures truck fatalities per 100 million miles driven. Waymo says its vehicles have collected data from more than 10 million autonomous miles driven in 25 cities, but these are not interstate tests and also involve drivers behind the wheel ready to take over. No other autonomous vehicle company is close to that number of miles.
Statistically, how many tens of millions of miles will need to be driven before the industry can make a statistically valid case that autonomous trucks are safer? The question of validity also needs to examine what counts as a fair test of reliability. For example, if an autonomous truck with a driver as backup goes a million miles before a driver intervenes and the company then changes their algorithms to prevent that type of incident, do those million miles count? Do tests in Arizona apply to the more difficult environment of driving in the winter in Minnesota?
And even if the autonomous vehicle industry can make a valid argument that their trucks are statistically safer, will voters and politicians respond rationally to an accident with fatalities? Humans are not wired to think scientifically. We respond to powerful anecdotes much more readily than statistics.
Autonomous Trucks and Jobs
Politics will also influence how states respond to these incidents. Florida and Texas, who have been open to this technology, have the most truck drivers. The average driver makes about $59,000, a good blue-collar salary. Associations representing truck drivers and unions can be expected to favor tough regulations surrounding autonomous trucks.
The American Trucking Association (ATA), has been claiming for years, fallaciously according to the US Department of Labor, that there is a driver shortage of 100,000 drivers. The ATA, which represents trucking firms, can be expected to lobby on behalf of more lenient regulations.
States that have a more permissive regulatory environment are apt to gain warehouse workers even as they lose truckers. When companies decide where to locate warehouses, they do a cost versus service analysis. Anything that lowers costs, and transportation is a big cost in logistics, makes a region more desirable for warehouses. However, warehouse jobs pay much less than truck driver jobs. The average pay for a warehouse worker is roughly $15 per hour – $30,000 per year. Not a great blue-collar wage.
The final thing autonomous vehicles could affect is consumer prices. Think of that fresh produce picked in California and trucked to the East Coast. Autonomous trucking is apt to lower the total landed cost of those goods, even if only be a little. Because the hours of service regulations will not apply, the produce will arrive fresher and less will need to be thrown away. Do farmers and retailers end up lobbying for autonomous trucks based on that?
In short, solving the technology problems will end up being a lot easier than the regulatory and political battles that are bound to arise. One thing I think you can count on, businesses are much more effective at lobbying than workers.