Wired sums up some of the advantages autonomous semis might offer but leaves off a third possible advantages: cheaper shipping costs which leads to cheaper goods.
In 2012 in the US, 330,000 large trucks were involved in crashes that killed nearly 4,000 people, most of them in passenger cars. About 90 percent of those were caused by driver error. “Anything that can get commercial vehicles out of trouble has a lot of value,” says Xavier Mosquet, head of Boston Consulting Group’s North America automotive division.
So it’s no surprise some of the country’s largest freight carriers have in recent years started equipping their vehicles with active safety features like lane control and automatic braking. The economic case for these measures—the predecessors to fuller autonomy—is clear, says Noël Perry, an economist who specializes in transportation and logistics…
Another point in favor of giving robots control is the serious and worsening shortage of humans willing to take the wheel. The lack of qualified drivers has created a “capacity crisis,” according to an October 2014 report by the American Transportation Research Institute. The American Trucking Associations predicts the industry could be short 240,000 drivers by 2022. (There are roughly three million full-time drivers in the US.)
That’s partly because long haul trucking is not an especially pleasant job, and because it takes time and money to earn a commercial driver’s license. The shortage will get worse, Perry says, thanks to a suite of regulations set to take effect in the next few years. A national database to collect company-performed drug and alcohol tests will make it harder for drivers who get in trouble at one job to land another. Speed limiters could keep trucks to a pokey 64 mph. Mandated electronic reporting of hours driven will make it harder to skirt rest rules and drive longer than allowed. These are all good changes from a safety perspective, but they’re not great for profits.
Safety is good and more meaningful jobs might be helpful – though losing a bunch of driving jobs won’t look good to many. But, what about the added benefit of cheaper shipping costs in the long run? Perhaps it will take some time for this technology to become cheap and widely adopted. Yet, if trucks can drive themselves and drivers don’t need to be paid, can’t these trucks run all day long making runs back and forth? And imagine if they could utilize greener technologies as well, limiting fuel costs. Americans like their cheap consumer goods and having everything shipped by semi just a little bit cheaper on store shelves may help Americans enjoy self-driving trucks even more.