Tech Talk: How Tesla’s autonomous truck Supercharged the Trucking Industry

Tech Talk is a series where we examine the latest trends in trucking technology and their potential impacts on the industry at large. In our first set of posts, we look a recent innovation to the industry’s keystone: the truck.

Since Tesla unveiled their autonomous trucks in November 2017, it seems like there is a new story about autonomous trucks every week. For the first time ever, trucks showed up on the floor at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January 2018, with Peterbilt and TuSimple showcasing their autonomous trucks. Multiple companies like Undelv and Pizza Hut have also taken their autonomous trucks to the streets in public delivery tests.

The Department of Transportation has also begun getting public input from manufacturers, the public, and truck drivers to determine if they should hasten the deployment of autonomous trucks. While the manufacturers of the trucks are moving ahead into production, the vehicle has caused much discussion of its implications within the trucking industry.

Many within the trucking industry are not happy with the development of the autonomous trucks. A vocal critic of trucking automation so far has been the Brotherhood of Teamsters. Union head James P. Hoffa has said in an interview with Reuters that he worries that the change is coming too fast and more research should be done on the impact of the people involved, particularly in terms of job security and safety.The Center for Global Policy Solutions has also published a report stating that autonomous trucking could hurt the economy of states that have a high volume of truckers such as West Virginia and Mississippi.

Autonomous truck manufacturers, on the other hand, purport autonomous trucks as a net positive for the industry. Besides integration possible with current freight-tracking systems, the companies claim that autonomous trucks also provide numerous benefits to shippers. The trucks can automatically calculate the most efficient lanes and routes, saving time on delivery. Additionally, the automated trucks can give truckers some respite on the freeway, where long haul truckers spend most of their days. This would lead to improved trucker health and wellbeing, thus helping to alleviate some driver turnover.

Tech companies rolling out autonomous trucks also argue that trucker job loss will be minimal. Autonomous trucks will still need drivers to navigate busy city streets and load at docks, and though the trucks can cruise down highways, drivers must be able to take over the rig at a moment’s notice. Even under a platooning, a possible model for autonomous truck fleets where one lead truck sends information to the other trucks that allows them to drive autonomously, there would need to be multiple drivers so the driver in the lead truck can be switched out regularly.

While these advancements hold lots of different possibilities for shippers and the industry, there is still much work to be done to put the infrastructure in place to get autonomous trucks running. Though Tesla has projected a 2019 release of its electrical truck, it has yet to announce a release date for the truck-specific charging stations that it would have to roll out across the nation. In an industry choking under an already large volume of freight demand that the ATA predicts will increase by 37%, autonomous trucks are being hailed by many tech companies as the solution to the driver shortage.

Whether or not the systems needed to keep the trucks functioning will be ready in time is yet to be known, and more solid research on automation’s impact on trucking has yet to be published. Nonetheless, we’ll have to sit on cruise control and patiently wait to see what the future holds.

Next time: We take a closer look at the electricity types powering the new generation of trucks.

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