Guest Blog: Looking Ahead: Implications of autonomous trucks

If autonomous trucks are fully adopted, operating costs would decline by about 45 percent and would save the U.S. for-hire trucking industry between $85 to $125B per year.

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As digitization and technological advancements continue exposing inefficiencies in every industry, we inch closer to an automated world. While technology is transforming many industries, one major industry this can drastically impact is logistics.

In fact, McKinsey & Company found that because 65 percent of the nation’s consumable goods are trucked to market, if and when autonomous trucks are fully adopted, operating costs would decline by about 45 percent and would save the U.S. for-hire trucking industry between $85-125B per year.  

While reaching full autonomy will take a while, the closer we get to making autonomous trucks (ATs) a reality in the U.S., the more important it becomes that we understand the implications of what this could mean for our roadways and the trucking industry – especially considering truck driving is a top job in more than half of the United States. 

Before ATs can enter the mainstream commercial market 

There are three broad categories, legal, social, and technical, where challenges/issues will need to be addressed and resolved before autonomous trucks enter the mainstream commercial market. On the legal front, in the U.S., individual states currently have very different regulations in place when it comes to self-driving vehicles. When you bring trucks and long-distance hauling into the equation, it becomes even more complicated. For example, a long-distance autonomous trucking route, which crosses several states, won’t be possible unless every state the truck passes through has laws that permit highly autonomous trucks on the roads.  

On the social side, there is already pushback from truckers who fear that a switch to full or even partial autonomy in trucking will result in a loss of jobs. In order to combat this concern, trucking companies, manufacturers, and technology companies will need to present an honest and united front when it comes to communicating the timeline, rollout, and potential impact of autonomous trucks on careers and day-to-day life. This strategy should aim to put truckers, and society as a whole, more at ease and prevent the spread of misinformation, which can lead to panic.  

Lastly, technical developments are possibly the most crucial piece of the puzzle. Highly autonomous trucks will not hit the roads in force if the technology behind them isn’t running as efficiently and reliably as possible. Like with autonomous cars, there will need to be many rounds of prototyping and controlled testing and, inevitably, glitches and issues, before these trucks become a widely used commercial freight solution. 

Anticipated timeline 

The timeline for full rollout of autonomous trucks will vary depending on the location. In the U.S., even if the technology is available, it’s contingent upon state regulations for long-distance hauling. While piloting and tests might start sooner in controlled areas, such as the Otto pilot drive in Colorado and UPS investing in self-driving trucks to be tested in Arizona, my prediction is that we won’t see a mainstream presence of long- or short-distance autonomous trucking for several more years in the U.S.

However, we’re already seeing other countries with more progressive regulations make moves quickly on this front. Volvo Trucks, based in Sweden, is actively seeking partners for commercial pilots in Norway – the first of which will involve transporting limestone from mines to ports as early as this coming winter. Depending on the outcome of these pilots and the benefits they could bring to businesses and local economies, it’s likely that more major retailers will want to explore autonomous trucking solutions sooner rather than later. 

Addressing skepticism 

With any new technology comes the uncertainty surrounding the unknown. Since self-driving passenger cars have experienced several stops and starts since they first entered the scene, it’s very likely autonomous trucking will be met with a good deal of skepticism. In general, people will likely be more open to the idea if these self-driving trucks are kept in controlled environments and have stringent and proven safety technologies. For instance, if autonomous truck fleets are exclusively traveling highways during overnight hours, passenger car drivers will likely feel more at ease.  

As these advancements continue to emerge in the autonomous vehicle industry, it’s crucial that the general public is updated on these technologies, their safety features, and potential benefits, such as: 

  •  A widespread rollout of highly regulated autonomous trucks can drive for longer, make trips faster, and results in less congestion on the roads.
  • The fact that driver fatigue, a major safety concern in the trucking world, is negated when a truck has no driver .
  • The cost-savings associated with more efficient, driverless fleets has the potential to trickle down to consumers if autonomous solutions are adopted by mainstream brands on a broader scale.

It’ll be fascinating to continue watching this evolution of one of America’s largest industries. While the benefits of deploying autonomous trucks are undeniable, the growing demand for truck drivers indicates this role will never fully be obsolete. I’m excited to see where the industry lands in the next 10-15 years and look forward to the developments to come.  


Information provided by TRUCKiD.com. Richard Reina is the product training director at TRUCKiD.com, a one-stop-shop for aftermarket semi-truck parts and accessories. 



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