The Future of Truck Driving

The Future of Truck Driving
Bob Costello

It seems the trucking industry is in a permanent state of shortage when it comes to drivers.

Bob Costello, the chief economist for the American Trucking Associations, most recently put the gap at 80,000. He said the shortage could hit as high as 160,000 by 2030, and trucking companies would have to recruit as many as 1 million drivers over the course of the next decade to cover it.

“Since we last released an estimate of the shortage, there has been tremendous pressure on the driver pool,” Costello said last fall. “Increased demand for freight, pandemic-related challenges from early retirements, closed driving schools and DMVs, and other pressures are really pushing up demand for drivers and subsequently the shortage.”

In the midst of the annual consternation about driver shortage are the growing research and interest in autonomous vehicles. Have trouble finding drivers? Use a truck that doesn’t need one.

But the solution isn’t that simple. Autonomous vehicles have a long ride ahead before they’re fully developed and financially sensible.

TuSimple, an autonomous truck company in San Diego, recently announced it had completed test runs, without drivers, on an 80-mile route between Tucson, Arizona, and Phoenix. It said it was the first company to do so without a driver in the cab as a backup.

The route was from a rail yard pickup to a distribution center, and the company said it didn’t prepare the route for its truck, leaving it in “as-in” conditions for the truck to adapt to.

There is a caveat here. TuSimple had a vehicle a few miles in front of the autonomous truck to survey the route and a following vehicle just behind the driverless truck; oh, and law enforcement personnel followed the truck as well.

The true implementation of autonomous vehicles will presumably not require a three-vehicle escort for each one.

It makes sense for trucking companies to show interest in autonomous vehicles. Labor costs are about 40% of the cost of doing trucking business.

J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. of Lowell has partnered with Waymo, the autonomous vehicle company owned by Alphabet Inc. of Mountain View, California, for pilot programs in Texas. The partnership began in June 2021 and was recently extended and expanded.

Walmart Inc. of Bentonville has a partnership with Gatik of Mountain View, California, to test driverless deliveries between a warehouse and store in Bentonville. Two Gatik trucks began making the 7.1-mile trip between the locations without a driver in August — there is a passenger in the cab for emergencies.

“Through our work with Gatik, we’ve identified that autonomous box trucks offer an efficient, safe and sustainable solution for transporting goods on repeatable routes between our stores,” said Tom Ward, the company’s senior vice president of Last Mile, in November. “We’re thrilled to be working with Gatik to achieve this industry-first, driverless milestone in our home state of Arkansas and look forward to continuing to use this technology to serve Walmart customers with speed.”

A University of Michigan study recently reported that autonomous vehicles could affect between 300,000 and 500,000 jobs if fully implemented. Most autonomous vehicles are expected to be used for long haul — i.e., interstate trips between cities — and the Michigan study said most trucking companies believe long-haul job effects would be offset by gains in other segments.

At a Women in Trucking Association event in November, TuSimple executive Vivian Sun was quoted as saying that truck driving is still a career new drivers would be able to retire from several decades from now.

Many of the challenges of finding truck drivers from a company perspective could be softened by not needing drivers for some routes.

Companies using autonomous vehicles don’t have to worry about them passing a drug test. They don’t have to worry about hours-of-service regulations.

Autonomous vehicles won’t take over the roadways anytime soon. But it will be interesting to see how the technology develops in the coming years. It is mostly being tested in the Southern and Southwestern states; let’s see what happens when an autonomous vehicle gets hit by a sudden blizzard in middle-of-nowhere Montana.