How far are we from self-driving trucks?
While autonomous driving has been grabbing eyeballs for the past decades, either it’s for food delivery or urban transportation, the media are drawn to broken promises like Tesla crashes or a Google car failure.
But the truth is, the era of self-driving is already here with real commercial projects. Currently, the U.S. has 3.5 million professional truck drivers. The industry in total employees over 8.7 million people according to the American Trucking Association.
It is an $800 billion industry that drives companies like Google, Amazon, UPS, Tesla, and Volvo to race each other to the finish line. Full automation could save companies $300 billion in labor cost according to Bernstein analysts.
However, in the foreseeable future, trucks would still need human drivers, just a lot less in numbers.
The upside of a “Robo-truck” is clear. That includes following a workflow, precision driving, consistency, the ability to scale, and the trucks don’t stop for food, sleep, or rest.
Vera, an autonomous truck brand under Volvo is already working in commercial projects in Sweden. In collaboration with logistics company DFDS, Vera is transporting goods between a port in Gothenburg, Sweden, and a delivery center.
The truck is powered by electricity with zero-emission. The administrator can monitor the fleet from a control tower. Currently, Vera is used for carrying large shipping containers for a short distance. Aside from inside of the shipyard, the route also includes a stretch of public roads. The speed of the trucks maxes out at 25mph.
However, it also brings in the challenges that autonomous trucks face. Long-distance traveling on public roads often means unpredictable conditions like navigating in a snowstorm or driving through densely populated neighborhoods.
The arrival of 5G may give the battle between human and machine a compromise. In 2017, Huawei demonstrated how a vehicle could be driven remotely with 5G. The network which is known for low latency allows the driver to have a 240-degree view of the car’s surrounding.
In February 2019, Einride demonstrated remote driving via 5G network at the Mobile World Congress using similar technology. You can drive their truck from 1,200 miles away via a simulator as if you were in the cabin.
Three months later, the Swedish authority gave the company permission to begin daily freight deliveries in public roads.
However, the U.S. market is where the companies are most eager to enter.
Robert Falck, the CEO of the company told Reuter “Ground zero for autonomous vehicles is the United States. I think it will be the first market to scale when it comes to autonomous vehicles.”
In the U.S, Einride will face some fierce competitions.
TuSimple, an autonomous truck startup has been moving UPS shipping with 50 self-driving trucks between Phoenix and Tucson for months. The company is valued at $1.1 billion, and just raised a total of $215 million.
Embark, a San Francisco-based software company completed a 44-hour coast-to-coast 2400-mile autonomous ride in February.
Amazon is using its truck for delivery on the I-10 currently.
People have been seeing autonomous Tesla semi-truck on California highways since May 2019. Its version of self-driving truck can go 500 miles between charges, and haul 80,000 pounds of goods.
While autonomous trucks still struggle to handle urban conditions, Amazon and others are working on robots that could handle city conditions.
It is unlikely truck driving jobs would go completely away. However, either in the form of a human 5G artificial intelligent hybrid or a fleet control model that only requires few administrators will certainly reduce the number of human drivers needed in the industry.
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