The idea of autonomous trucks taking over the trucking industry has been all over the place in recent news. Some studies have predicted that robots will take about 40 percent of all jobs in the next two decades. That could make a lot of people out of a job, but in the context of trucking, automation — specifically autonomous vehicles — could be a godsend. Many people are very skeptical about how and if this could offer a positive impact on the huge driver shortage in the U.S., but tech and transportation firms think exactly the opposite. So, how could it be positive?
Uber does not believe that self-driving trucks will do any damage to the industry. Alden Woodrow, the product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber, says that he saw their version of self-driving trucks as complementing humans, not replacing them. They see a future in which self-driving trucks drive highway miles between what they call transfer hubs, where human drivers will take over for the last miles through complex urban and industrial terrain.
“We’ve been disappointed over the last year to see a lot of stories about how self-driving trucks are going to be this huge problem for truck drivers,” Woodrow said. “That’s not at all what we think the outcome is going to be.”
Under the “transfer hub” model, for example, unmanned long-haul trucks would travel from exit to exit on freeways and swap trailers with trucks operated by local drivers at designated transfer stations. This limits the scope of where they can operate, leaving much of the work to drivers in conventional vehicles.
Other concepts include “teleoperation” of autonomous trucks with remote backup drivers, or piggybacking on truck platooning technology to create mixed convoys of piloted and autonomous vehicles. These business models could begin to address trucking’s persistent labor shortage and high driver turnover rates.
No one knows exactly how fast self-driving trucks will become part of the industry or how much impact they will have in the coming years, but signs are pointing to a new reality: they could help the industry. The people who keep it running will continue to show us why autonomous trucks would be an important part of the supply chain.