Autonomous semi-trucks: Revolution comes at a price

Technology is taking over global supply chains at a never before pace and tech-solutions to ‘difficult for human’ tasks are being accepted with arms wide open. One such technology is of self-driven automobiles, which has recently garnered a lot of attention and high acceptance rate in the last few years. There are now self driven or autonomous vehicles (AVs) almost everywhere around the world.

Taking a cue from the general application of AVs, the logistics industry has also started to fiddle with the technology. Behold the autonomous semis! Semi-trucks, or Semis, are a very popular mode of freight movement in the US and when you consider the ongoing shortage of labor in the US trucking sector, these self driven semi-trucks seem like a good idea. They show a promising future of trucking by being unsusceptible to driver shortages, increasing vehicle prices, fuel price volatility, performance limitations and safety concerns.

The pilot projects for autonomous semi-trucks are being run on the American Sun Belt i.e. the states of Texas, Arizona and Florida by various trucking companies. Considering that the weather conditions in these states are little more welcoming than the rest of the country throughout the year, these states are the ideal ‘testing labs’ for autonomous semis. These trucking companies are fairly confident about the success rate of autonomous semi-trucks on the highways, at least.

Alphabet’s self-driving truck venture Waymo Via last month announced it is teaming up with truck fleet operator C.H. Robinson — which has a network of nearly 200,000 shippers and carriers and data on more than 3 million trucking routes — to deliver freight between Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston using automated trucks. 

However, a new research from the University of Michigan and Carnegie Mellon University, exploring the impact of autonomous semi-trucks on the long haul trucking operator hours in the US, presents a different side of the coin. The study points to the fact that if the technology is deployed throughout the country i.e. in all weather conditions, it could impact up to 94% of long haul trucking operator hours – which would mean loss of around 500,000 jobs. However, if the technology is restricted to the southern states, where the majority of companies are currently testing automated trucking, only 10% of operator-hours are impacted. The study also says that the increase in short-haul operations will not compensate for the loss in long-haul operations and transfer hub deployment could create short haul jobs in locations that are different from where long haul truckers currently live.

Let us now look at the Transfer Hub Model – a possible method of deployment of this technology. So, a human driven truck will take the cargo from origin to truck port A, through the urban/sub-urban (more complex) route. From there, the cargo will be loaded to an autonomous semi-truck which will transport it to truck port B, through the highway. Then again it will be loaded to a human driven truck which will take the cargo to the intended destination via the urban/sub-urban route. However, this is just one of the many ways the technology can be deployed.

Transfer hub model of deployment

There are many arguments when it comes to dependence on autonomous semi-trucks, some in favour and some against it. There is the factor of humans losing work to machines, although some argue that the estimates are exaggerated. Then there is also an argument that the technology will ease the pressure on truck drivers as long-haul trucking is a tedious job. Another thing to consider is that a machine can fail, leading to accidents and other safety lapses, which may turn fatal in some cases.

These conflicting arguments make one thing clear – the deployment of automated semi-trucks needs to be done after all possible pros and cons of the technology have been taken into consideration as it would impact hundreds and thousands of not trucking industry workers, but those of auxiliary sectors too.

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