Autonomous trucks have caught the attention of fleets and logistics companies across the country. With a long-standing worker shortage in the transportation industry, autonomous technology may offer an alternative to hiring drivers. This advancement also stands to decrease labor costs and increase shipping opportunities. Yet there are still several hurdles that are slowing progress. Let’s take a closer look.
Public Safety Fears
Ensuring the public that autonomous trucks are a safer alternative to human drivers has been a challenge. There’s a sense of security that comes along with knowing a human is driving a vehicle. You can trust their common sense and desire to avoid danger to help them stay in control should something happen. When a computer is driving, even if there are statistically fewer accidents, people get uncomfortable.
Companies have pushed the public safety aspect forward by promising that autonomous trucks will eliminate the hazards of tired and distracted drivers sitting behind the wheel. But developers haven’t been able to do enough road tests to prove their vehicles can fully deliver on safety promises.
To reach that point, autonomous technology will need not only to be able to drive in various weather and road conditions, but also react appropriately when there is a problem with the truck. When dealing with a blown tire or a compromised sensor, the truck must be able to safely exit traffic. It will take time to test all these scenarios.
While autonomous technology is steamrolling ahead, policymakers are struggling to keep up, and technology companies are waiting to learn what regulations they are going to have to meet. Will they need to acquire a special license to operate autonomous vehicles? Will operations be limited to specific areas? Time will tell.
Without regulatory framework developed by the Department of Transportation (DOT) or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), truck pilot programs are left in the dark. Innovators don’t know what technology will be allowed inside vehicles, and what will need to be developed to be compliant. Since things move slowly with the government, this challenge isn’t likely to be resolved anytime soon.
Making a Commercially Viable Product
Today, there are prototypes on the road, but there are only a few companies focused on making autonomous trucks a mass-produced reality. That being the case, vehicles using this technology are still a minimally viable product, and companies working to push forward are subject to the price whims of tech manufacturers and automakers. So how do we get from minimally viable to commercially viable?
A commercially viable product is one that can effectively compete with other products on the market and can be a profitable investment for a company. In order for companies to invest, autonomous trucks need to offer significant benefits over hiring and maintaining regular drivers. So when can we expect that to become a reality? Likely not anytime soon. Fleet companies, especially smaller operations, could find themselves priced out for many years to come.
Despite the many challenges companies will have to address, the future seems bright for manufacturers and shippers. Trucks capable of driving themselves could be a boon to the logistics industry by paving new ways to deliver shipments on time and within budget.