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The logistics industry is always looking to innovate to improve performance and efficiency. New digital technology is one area that has seen great leaps forward in recent years and has been integrated with current working practices.

But one area of technology that has been slower to adapt is autonomous vehicles. While autonomous technology is widely used in the warehousing part of the industry, the actual use of self-driving vehicles is not yet at the stage where it is a completely viable alternative.

Why Does the Industry Want Autonomous Trucks?

There are a number of reasons that the logistics and shipping sectors have been looking at using autonomous trucks (ATs). First and foremost is for profit. When you consider that around 65% of the nation’s consumer goods are moved by truck, in a scenario where full autonomy was achievable (something that is decades away), you would be looking at a drop in costs of approximately 45%, which in monetary terms would mean savings to the American trucking industry of between $85 billion and $125 billion.

A second reason is environmental impact. Much of technology surrounding ATs involves the development of electric trucks, something that would drastically reduce emissions across the country. This would see improvements both in air quality and, as a result, public health.

The third main reason for use of ATS is that experts predict it would lead to vastly improved safety on our roads. In 2017 alone, there were more than 450,000 accidents involving trucks across the U.S. Those resulted in more than 4,200 fatalities and more than 344,000 injuries. If properly developed and deployed, ATs could see those numbers drastically reduced.

The Negatives

One factor many commentators point to as a negative factor is the potential sociological impact. Driving trucks is almost an American way of life and is the primary occupation in many states. The move away from a human driver to a driverless truck could have major impacts on trucking jobs. If you look at both heavy and light truck drivers, some 2.5 to 3.5 million people list that as an occupation.

A counter argument is that for the past 15 years, the American Trucking Associations (ATA) have reported a consistent shortage of truck drivers. In 2018, they reported that the deficit stood at 60,800 drivers and that figure is estimated to double in the next decade. So there is a need for some level of ATs to be integrated into the system, even if only at local levels.

Another hurdle ATs face is how they work on America’s roads. Most AT systems partly rely on cameras to read road signs and marking. But much of the road infrastructure in the U.S. is in a state of disrepair. Questions have also been raised over how ATs “communicate” with pedestrians and other vehicles.

And while computing technology continues to make great strides forward, many experts are unsure that AT technology is yet at the level needed for trucks or indeed passenger vehicles to operate fully autonomously. People point to aircraft autopilot systems as an example of how an AT system could work but autopilot systems are not fully machine-learning algorithms, something that would be needed to make ATs completely safe.

Another potential issue is that as with any computing system, an AT computer could be susceptible to hacking, something that raises more safety issues. Far more stringent standards and checks will be required before the nation’s roads are ready for widespread use of ATs.

What Can Happen?

There is already widespread use of automated systems in many parts of the logistics and shipping industries. There are warehouse facilities that are almost fully automated with limited human supervision and no human contact with goods until they are loaded onto the delivery trucks. Ports also have integrated a lot of automation, from container handling through to movement of goods around the port.

But where automated vehicles are – so far – proving a success is within closed environments where there is little in the way of unknown variables that may cause problems. These environments tend to offer few hurdles to efficient use of ATs. The areas tend to be flat and the vehicles usually travel set routes and patterns, thus minimizing the chances of accidents.

But the more widespread use of driverless trucks for drayage is still some time off. And it will not be an instant process. There will more likely be a gradual integration of some automated processes just as we have seen a gradual integration of technology by owner operators who look to improve their trucking company. Insiders see the move to ATs happening in waves, though some predictions of full autonomy in the next 10 years may be ambitious.

The Takeaway

At some point in the future, the United States will see a move to at least partial use of ATs for drayage. But whether that move is 5, 10, or even 20 years away is a question that is still to be definitively answered. As e-commerce expands, we may see limited use of ATS at a more local level, delivering goods to end users from distribution centres, but a move to full transnational ATs for drayage may be one of the last steps we see in the process.

At Asiana USA, we are always monitoring new technology and development that may impact the industry. Until the future arrives, we continue to offer the very best drayage services in the country. If you need goods moved anywhere in the U.S., call us today to ask for more information or to request a quote. You can reach us at (855)-500-1808.

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