March 22, 2022

Shortage of Long-Haul Truck Drivers Solved by Driverless Technology?

Do you know where the first autonomous driving truck was driven and what it carried? In 2016 two thousand cases of Budweiser beer were delivered from Fort Collins Colorado to Colorado Springs, a roughly 190 kilometer trip on Interstate 25. There was a driver in the cab but there was no human intervention necessary on this delivery. Viewpoint Vancouver wrote about this feat six years ago.

Top beer brands such as Budweiser owners Anheuser Busch deliver a million truck loads of beer a year, making driverless technology a way to improve efficiency.

Of course the other factors is that driverless technology can also deal with a pesky truck driver shortage, and six years later here are the statistics from the University of Michigan/Carnegie Mellon University: with a shortage of long-haul truck drivers, it is now estimated that self driving trucks can replace half a million jobs in the United States, or ninety percent of long haul trucking.

Autonomous driving engineers (yes, there is such a profession) perceive long-haul trucking as the best way to implement driverless trucks as there is little “complexity” in the way that highways are designed, making “exceptions” easy to program for self-driving vehicles.

The part that is difficult is what has already been identified by other driverless systems: highways are easy to negotiate, but once off the highway the environment is not as easy to program or to plan for.

A proposed alternative is for long-haul transfer stations to be set up at highway exists, where human drivers will drive a truck “the last mile” to or from the original and/or intended destinations.

You can read more about the study here.

The study as reported in Bloomberg Green by Kyle Stock has some interesting information about truckers. There are 3.3 million truck drivers in the United States but in long-haul trucking the entire workforce turns over every 12 months. Long-haul truck drivers are on the road 300 days a year and make an average of $47,000 USD (about $59,000 Canadian). It turns out the short-haul routes are more complex, have higher salaries and maintain more experienced drivers.

With a shortage of 61,000 drivers, people are being encouraged to immigrate to the United States to take trucking jobs. Trucking companies are also seeking to have the minimum age of truck drivers lowered from 21 years to 18 years of age.

As Mr. Stock describes in his article “when it comes to piloting an 80,000-pound machine going 75 miles an hour, the choice might come to a robot or a teenager“.

With the dearth of drivers and the lower pay for long-haul trucking there are new startups that are offering driverless long-haul truck technology, insisting that their systems also lower gas use up to ten percent. One company TuSimple in California has already removed human “chaperons” on an 80 mile portion of highway between Phoenix and Tucson, with plans to go across the country by 2023.

You can take a look at TuSimple’s YouTube video describing their autonomous driving system and trucking trials below.


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