As technology companies search for the next frontier in innovation, a lot of attention has been given to the development of autonomous vehicles. Companies like Google and Tesla have captured the attention of the public through their investment in the creation of fully automated cars for the everyday consumer. Even traditional players in the automotive industry like Ford and Volvo have announced plans to enter into this space.1 Alongside these efforts, many companies in both auto and tech are working to integrate that same technology into commercial transportation vehicles, particularly commercial trucks.
Approximately 70% of all freight in the United States is transported by trucks, with roughly 4 million truck drivers traveling an estimated 430 billion miles each year.2 As the industry represents such a crucial part of the transportation business, there’s a strong push to develop and apply automated driving in order to drive progress within the industry.
That’s where Otto comes in.
Otto was acquired by Uber in August with the goal of launching a self-driving truck service (Uber Freight) in the next few months.3 However, as you can tell from the video, there are a number of considerations that factor into bringing an initiative like this to the mainstream.
Less Accidents and Reduced Costs, What’s Not to Love?
In this industry, automated driving technology offers a number of potential benefits to companies and society at large. Currently, labor represents 40-75% of the operational costs for the entire industry.4,6 While presently the law requires a human in the truck while the technology is being used, the ultimate goal will be to eliminate the need for a driver at all.
In addition, drivers are restricted by law from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an 8-hour break. In contrast, a driverless truck can operate almost 24 hours per day, allowing a company to double the driver’s output for a single day.
As shipping represents a considerable portion of the cost of goods being transported, these savings can also be shared with the end consumer in the form of lower prices on goods.
In addition to cost savings, once this technology is implemented across the industry, we can expect a steep reduction in the number and severity of accidents involving commercial trucks. In the US, approximately 300,000 tractor trailers or large trucks are involved in crashes each year that have resulted in ~4,000 deaths per year. It is also estimated that 90 percent of these accidents are the result of driver error.2 Automated driving technology that reduces or eliminates the human component from driving has the potential to greatly reduce the dangers we see today. While it’s unclear whether people will ever be completely removed from the equation, any reduction in the number of human drivers needed to operate trucks could have a substantial impact on the bottom line in this industry.
But What Happens to the Human Element?
This innovation also presents a number of potential risks and issues that go hand-in-hand with the benefits discussed above. Approximately 4 million people are employed as commercial truck drivers in the United States: 2.9 million truckers and delivery drivers, 674,000 bus drivers, 181,000 cab drivers and chauffeurs.2,7 This job represents one of the last industries in which non-college-educated individuals can earn middle class wages. Therefore, the introduction of automated trucks may risk losing jobs for about 1-2% of the entire US workforce and have an adverse effect on our economy as a whole.7,8
This change may also affect the way we are able to determine liability in the case of an accident. Traditionally, we have determined liability based on the circumstances surrounding a human driver and his/her ability to operate a vehicle safely. Now, this liability will likely be shifted to companies, increasing the potential of incurring costs through legal and repair fees.
There’s No Stopping the Future
From a 2011 study5 conducted in an Australian mining company, we can see that the issues associated with the industry are not particularly new, they just have not been sufficiently solved yet.
However, innovation continues on. A number of fully-autonomous and semi-autonomous commercial trucks are in their testing phases. For example, Uber has begun to test self-driving tractor trailers in Colorado and California while Freightliner has been using their highway autopilot technology to provide semi-autonomous driving capabilities for tractor trailers.
Driverless trucking is right around the corner and the only remaining barriers are in the regulatory category. But, safety regulators want to see autonomous driving technology rolled out in the US. In fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation has made a commitment to push research with “a 10-year, $4 billion investment to accelerate the development and adoption of safe vehicle automation through real-world pilot projects.” 9
It is clear that the future is here, but are we ready for it?
1 Chafkin, Max, “Uber’s First Self-Driving Fleet Arrives in Pittsburgh This Month”, Bloomberg Business, 2016. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2016-08-18/uber-s-first-self-driving-fleet-arrives-in-pittsburgh-this-month-is06r7on. Accessed November 2016.
2 American Trucking Association, “Reports, Trends & Statistics”. http://www.trucking.org/News_and_Information_Reports.aspx. Accessed November 2016.
3 Steinmetz, Katy, “Inside Otto, Uber’s New Self-Driving Truck Division”, Time, 2016. http://time.com/4458507/otto-uber-deal-driverless-autonomous-trucks. Accessed November 2016.
4 Knight, Will, “China’s Driverless Trucks Are Revving Their Engines”, MIT Technology Review, 2016. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/602854/chinas-driverless-trucks-are-revving-their-engines. Accessed November 2016.
5 Drew Bellamy, Luka Pravica, Assessing the impact of driverless haul trucks in Australian surface mining, Resources Policy, Volume 36, Issue 2, June 2011, Pages 149-158, (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301420710000516)
6 Cohen, Sam, “Are Driverless Trucks Ready For Delivery?”, Huffington Post, 2016. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sam-cohen/are-driverless-trucks-rea_b_12742318.html. Accessed November 2016.
7 Wadwha, Vivek, “Commentary: Shift to automation may prevent Trump from delivering on his jobs promise”, Chicago Tribune, 2016. http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-trump-biz-tech-automation-robots-jobs-20161109-story.html. Accessed November 2016.
8 American Transportation Research Institute, “Identifying Autonomous Vehicle Technology Impacts on the Trucking Industry”. http://atri-online.org/2016/11/15/5267/. Accessed November 2016.
9 U.S. Department of Transportation, “Secretary Foxx Unveils President Obama’s FY17 Budget Proposal of Nearly $4 Billion for Automated Vehicles and Announces DOT Initiatives to Accelerate Vehicle Safety Innovations”. https://www.transportation.gov/briefing-room/secretary-foxx-unveils-president-obama%E2%80%99s-fy17-budget-proposal-nearly-4-billion. Accessed November 2016.
10 Trenholm, Richard, “Why self-driving cars won’t put all Uber drivers out of a job”, MIT Technology Review, 2016. https://www.cnet.com/roadshow/news/uber-self-driving-cars-will-not-replace-all-uber-drivers. Accessed November 2016.