Self-driving Trucks: Possible Solution to our Driver Shortage

The headlines have been pretty clear over the last months:

The “shortage of trained individuals to replace a rapidly aging workforce in trucking and warehousing will ultimately raise transport and storage costs for shippers.”1

The American Trucking Association (ATA) has estimated that there will be a shortage of some 200,000 qualified truck drivers over the next decade. Trucking companies are turning down business for want of workers.2

The reasons are many and varied, but the main arguments seem to be too little pay (see chart below), long hours and time away from the family.

 
LWL026 Self-Driving Trucks Salary Chart
One of the technologies that we are seeing that may offer a solution to this problem is the autonomous or self-driving truck.

 
Driverless Truck

We are many years from seeing these trucks at every intersection, but these trucks (and even passenger cars) are a reality today!

In the passenger vehicle arena, Ford is “vowing to bring various driver-assist technologies to its entire lineup within five years”3, Google has several self-driving cars on the roads and Tesla has recently integrated Autopilot software in certain models (though this does not make them self-driving!).

In the commercial trucking world, Freightliner already has a leg up on the competition with their “Inspiration” model truck. It is the first ever self-driving commercial truck to receive a road license plate for autonomous operation on the public highways of the state of Nevada. These trucks are still “manned” by a driver, but the driver is able to take his eyes and concentration off the road for longer periods of time. Even at this stage, this will reduce the stress of long, monotonous hours on the road and will reduce the potential for accidents due to fatigue or driver distraction.

We don’t foresee these autonomous trucks snaking through your neighborhood streets any time soon, but we can imagine them taking on some of the long-haul, highway-only routes in the near future.

One of the more realistic concepts is called “platooning”, which is where a group of trucks would travel together (with at least the first truck manned by a driver) and each of the trucks behind would accelerate and brake based on the actions of the first truck.

 
LWL026 Truck Platooning
This would be similar to a rail-less railroad providing more flexibility in transportation networks and would require far less truck drivers for the dreaded long-hauls.

Once the platoon reached its destination, single drivers would hop into each individual truck and take the payload to its individual destination.

These technologies offer great alternatives to some of the problems we are facing today in our logistics industry. We need to keep safety in mind before moving forward with any of these ideas, but these innovations could provide a giant leap forward in tackling some of the critical issues we face.

Keep looking toward the future, but, more important…embrace it!

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Sources for this piece can be found at:
1 from Bill Mongelluzzo’s September 29, 2015 article “US warehouse, logistics sector warned of labor shortage” found at www.joc.com/trucking-logistics/labor/us-warehouse-logistics-sector-warned-labor-shortage_20150929.html
2 from Neil Irwin’s August 9, 2014 article in the New York Times “The Trucking Industry Needs More Drivers. Maybe It Needs to Pay More.” Found at http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/10/upshot/the-trucking-industry-needs-more-drivers-it-should-try-paying-more.html?_r=0
3 from Joann Muller’s June 23, 2015 article in Forbes “Ford Takes A Step Closer To Self-Driving Cars”. http://www.forbes.com/sites/joannmuller/2015/06/23/ford-takes-a-
step-closer-to-self-driving-cars/

About Lenny

Many years of experience in a Fortune 1000 companies, especially in the logistics and I.T. areas of manufacturing companies. Through process improvements and the use of many of the tools mentioned here, I have been able to identify and implement savings opportunities worth up to $10 million. I hope that some of these real-life stories, suggestions and tools can help you!
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