Of all the potential uses for autonomous driving, the trucking industry is perhaps not the most inspiring. People want to see driverless cars whizzing around cities, lowering the cost of taxicabs, delivering food, allowing urban drivers to do other things whilst commuting. In reality, though, the technology is some way away from full adoption; it needs areas in which it can be tested. One of these is trucking, an industry as yet relatively untouched by the digital revolution, as companies identify it as a potential early adopter of AI-driven vehicles.
There are a number of companies looking to make automated trucking a reality in the relatively near future. Both Uber and Tesla, for example, are exploring the possibility, with the latter hoping to combine the development with the proliferation of its electric vehicles. Tesla’s drivetrains are well known for their superior performance and Elon Musk revealed just days ago that the company plans to unveil an electric semi-trucks in late October. As noted by Forbes, it’s the company’s first foray into commercial vehicles (as opposed to luxury cars) and as a result the unveiling will be a high-profile one.
There are a number of concerns over Tesla’s ability to offer workable electrification of the trucking market at present, though, given that issues like charging infrastructure and range are still in the process of being addressed. In many ways, the hurdles in the trucking industry are the same as those in the consumer space; customers want range that can compete with or dwarf that of diesel, and they want charging stations to be easily accessible wherever they are in the country. In this sense, Tesla’s commitment to fully electric vehicles could slow it down. While others look simply to make autonomous driving a reality, Tesla has the added hurdle of providing an electronic infrastructure. Uber, also, is facing issues both culturally and in terms of its business. Its recent loss of its license to operate in London is indicative of a company in crisis and it’s doubtful it will beat other more settled companies to the post.
One company dedicated solely to making autonomous trucking a reality is Embark. The newcomer clearly sees automation as the future of commercial haulage and is working to make it a reality. ‘While most of the spectacle has been around passenger vehicles,’ the company says on its website, ‘we believe that commercial trucking, the backbone of our economy, stands too reap untold benefits.’ Embark is developing an autopilot system capable of navigating across the US’ vast expanses of road, reducing the need for long haul drivers who, for large stretches, simply keep the truck straight.
What makes trucking ripe for relatively speedy automation is the fact that open stretches of interstate between cities are some of the most predictable roads on earth. Straight, open road is far less likely to pose too many complications for the software to deal with, and there are no cyclists or pedestrians to complicate the system. It’s during these large stretches, too, that tiredness and boredom can cause human error. If automation can become proven within trucking in terms of preventing accidents and running at a similar or improved efficiency compared to human drivers, people will become more comfortable with the notion of having them in cities. Trucking is, in a sense, the ideal test subject for autonomous driving - an uncomplicated platform to prove that, in practice as well as theory, AI can drive vehicles.
But the trucking industry is more than just a willing test subject for the development of AI on the road. The benefits autonomous driving potentially poses for the industry are great. Not only would the technology free up time for drivers on the road (they will likely still need to be present in the vehicle in case any problems arise) it could be used to plug the generational gap set to plague the industry. ‘Trucking is in a very unique spot where you have a commercial need, and you also have a demographic need that very few people know about,’ Embark CEO Alex Rodrigues told TechCrunch. ‘Basically trucking is going to lose most of its workforce over the next 15 years, as the 50-65 year-old crowd retires. And no one’s coming in to fill that gap, because long-haul trucking is just not that attractive to a younger demographic. We’re able to solve the demographic problem, and improve productivity at the same time.’
Autonomous driving and trucking could form something of a marriage of convenience moving forward. The development makes sense both commercially and in terms of safety, making it in the interest of both haulage companies and vehicle manufacturers. It’ll be a while before we see autonomous taxi cabs and pizza delivery vehicles. On the interstates, though, change could be on the horizon.