BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Autonomous trucks are coming, and it’s going to change everything.
So says Noël Perry, truck and transportation expert at transport analyst firm FTR. He spoke recently at FTR’s annual conference in Indianapolis.“It’s the biggest change we’ve had since the invention of the Interstate highway,” Perry said.
And Perry is not talking about trucks with a backup driver, nor is he limiting talk of change to just the motor carrier industry.
Perry said he expects driverless trucks to be delivering goods by 2030, maybe even sooner.
“I originally thought it would be around 2030 but the technology is moving so fast it could be sooner than later,” he said. “The big players need to be looking hard at it. They’re already automating the port of L.A.”
“Autonomous trucks mean no drivers,” he said. “If you don’t have to have a guy in the truck you can double productivity because there’s no rest time. If the technology works, you double productivity and you half costs.
“These digital tools imply a huge increase in data. The productivity of the truck will have a lot to do with how well it’s integrated into supply chain data,” Perry said. Carriers will be able to adjust trip plans based on collected data, he added, and shippers should be able to update production plans. In addition, Perry noted, the new tools will change how goods are retailed. Transportation costs will decrease dramatically, so retailers’ costs will follow suit. This can mean bigger profit margins, lower retail prices, increased volume or all three.
“The dinosaurs are going to die and the new guys are going to survive,” he said. “Who would have thought 10 years ago that Walmart would have a competitor? Amazon is aiming right at Walmart.”
“The next five years, these tools are not going to mature enough. There’s going to be a shortage of drivers for a while then suddenly there will be a surplus,” Perry said. “There’s somewhere around 4 million truck drivers. What happens to those people? The answer is, over time, no problem. Since the industrial revolution we’ve had four or five waves of productivity that eliminated jobs. We’ll generate other jobs and if people are flexible and willing to adapt they’ll survive. It not, they’ll suffer.”
Perry sounded a similar note at the FTR conference.
The automated revolution “could create massive, temporary unemployment, like the depression” among truck drivers, Perry was quoted on the Overdrive.com web site.
Backup drivers would defeat the purpose of automated trucks as well as provide a false sense of security, Perry said.
“Any backup dramatically affects the productivity due to (the necessity for rest and complying with hours of service regulations).” “Backups can’t keep attention (over a period of several hours) or diagnose problems quickly,” Perry said. “It’s far better to build that automatic stuff into the system.”
“Many fleets are spec’ing automatic braking. Machines, as long as they are properly designed, are more reliable than people,” he said. “Machines will fail, but less often than people.”
As an example of technology vastly changing productivity and personnel needs, Perry pointed to coal hauling. Trains, he said, carry vastly more coal now than horse-drawn wagons, which used to do the job. Each form of transport is operated by two people.
“We’ve had these kind of revolutions and each time the economy figures out (how to absorb workers and generate more jobs),” Perry said. In 1950, he added, the average truck was 37 feet long and carried “maybe 10,000 pounds.”
“The productivity of our industry has more than tripled,” he said, but needs more drivers than ever.
However, Perry added, the government and industry will likely aid some of those displaced by technology, through training for alternate jobs and other programs designed to soften the blow of job losses.
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