Autonomous trucks on long-haul, human touch for last-mile?

13 January 2022

When it comes to the logistics space, a fine-tuned balance between human drivers and autonomous trucks could very well streamline the industry to a new level, both in trans-national supply chains and last-mile deliveries.

This comes on the heels of the increased possibility of supply chain disruptions, as truck drivers the world over are refusing contracts or quitting their jobs. This leaves 20% of all professional truck driving jobs worldwide unfulfilled, according to the International Road Transport Union.

Fears of getting sick, delays and regulations crossing borders, and weeks of quarantine has many people in the transportation and logistics industries, including truck drivers and those who work on cargo ships, refusing contracts or quitting their jobs.

Labor shortages are merely part of the challenges faced by the logistics industry due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and these challenges have caused transport costs to climb more than 20% since April 2020.

Autonomous trucks to the rescue?

Enter autonomous trucks, or, self-driving trucks. They may not only ease labor shortages but also aid in reducing overall logistics costs as well.

The technology has been available for years, with use cases in the past half-decade that show how autonomous driving tech could substantially improve the logistics industry at large.

Back in 2018, autonomous trucks by automaker Volvo have already been in use in Scandinavia, transporting limestone at a Norwegian mine. This was celebrated as one of the first deployments of autonomous vehicle technology in an industry, with the trucks tasked with transporting limestone to a port about five kilometers (three miles) away.

In the United States itself, there are already tech firms that aim to have autonomous trucks driving on highways as early as 2023. Testing is already going on around parts of Texas and the American Southwest, and all of them intend to expand their services from coast to coast.

Auto trucks, roll out (safely)! 

A large advantage of autonomous trucks is the safety factor that it brings. By removing human error from the equation, autonomous trucks also remove the hazards of having a fatigued driver at the wheel or lapses in concentration due to long hours of driving, thus lowering risks of harm to human life, cargo, or asset losses arising from accidents.

There are even systems already made available to provide autonomous vehicles with the ability to monitor every direction, with different instruments of detection as fail-safes for safety.

At the same time, removing the human element from trucking would also remove the restrictions put into place to facilitate safety for humans, particularly the limit on how long a truck can be driven before a mandatory rest period needs to be taken.

Where humans need sleep, autonomous vehicles do not, in turn allowing for trucks to be driven around the clock. This greatly improves timeliness for goods arrivals or quicker delivery for packages across the country.

Another way autonomous trucks could revolutionize the supply chain is also how they could use less fuel as compared to a human-operated truck, in turn making the trucking industry more sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Still, there is the limiting factor of the fuel needed for the trucks to run. One particular combination of technologies that might work here would be combining electric vehicles and autonomous vehicles for a fleet of round-the-clock, self-driving trucks.

These can then be charged via solar panels or even by means of another existing technology, contactless wireless charging. These, do, however, require concrete pavement roads that recharge the batteries of electric vehicles while they are in use.

Where does that leave human drivers?

As callous as it sounds, removing the human element from trucking does provide a lot of benefits. So if electric autonomous trucks are the future of the trucking industry, where does that leave the human truckers?

The answer, as much as it seems counter-intuitive to the work being put into automating it, would be in last-mile delivery.

While the trucking industry is seeing drivers quit or refusing contracts, a certain franchise in America is looking to hire over 3,000 drivers as part of its last-mile fulfillment network.

There are just some things that require the human touch, and last-mile delivery is definitely one of them. As much as drones are being tested for last-mile delivery, further research is still needed, even for the vaunted delivery drone fleet of a certain American e-commerce site, not to mention the need to iron out the fine print in regulations.

Still, truckers should have some time to plan ahead, considering the realistic view that fully autonomous vehicles are only expected on the roads by 2030, with one particularly large hangup the latency issue for autonomous vehicles to identify their location and drive themselves.