As the widespread deployment of self-driving cars looks to be slowing down, a point I highlighted in an earlier column, autonomous trucking has emerged as the new shining star in the race to commercialize self-driving technology. At least two factors have driven this shift. First is the ability to simplify the self-driving task. Using a transfer hub model, human drivers control the most complicated on-street and cargo handling duties, handing off to an autonomous system for the more straightforward highway portion. Second is the business case for the technology where per-mile cost savings of 30% are potentially realizable. COVID-19, with growing demand for home delivery and the general strain it has placed on supply chains, has strengthened the appeal of AV trucking.
Unlike software, autonomous trucking will not have a “launch” date. Instead, it will be deployed across certain geographies over time as self-driving companies learn and test new routes, building out their lane-level service networks over years. The sequence and rate at which this happens will be driven by a complex interplay between technological, economic, and regulatory incentives and limitations as well as willingness to reassess well entrenched operations and footprint. To help answer the question of “Where?”, Deloitte has developed a scenario planning solution – the Self-Driving Truck Adoption Rollout Tool, that aims to capture this complex interplay and use it to predict the expansion of autonomous trucking adoption at a lane level across the US over the next 20 years.
We see six areas that warrant deep consideration when preparing an autonomous trucking strategy:
1. Workforce Implications: The emergence of this new technology and business model causes valid and real concerns around potential job loss. Yet it could also present an opportunity, for once, to manage such a transition with humanity, justice, and forethought. The shift to driverless will play out over decades, making it possible to allow aging drivers to retire and be “backfilled” by an automated vehicle—avoiding the dislocation and economic hardship that come with layoffs. New jobs associated with the transfer hub model that require less time away from home are likely to emerge. How can this transition be actively managed to mitigate negative impacts on today’s and tomorrow’s truckers? How could trucking companies dedicate some of the significant cost savings they will earn from automation to help drivers transition to equally remunerative employment opportunities once they stop driving?
2. Supply Chain Network Operations: How will a 30% decrease in cost, potential doubling of driving range to 1000 miles/day, and near 24/7 trucking operations impact decisions such as optimal warehouse placement, mode choice optimization (e.g. air and rail substitution), and hours of operation for warehouse staff? For example, the increased range could lead to fewer warehouses being needed to cover the US while still meeting customer delivery time expectations.
3. Industry Structure: As autonomous tech increases the complexities of operating a fleet while simultaneously lowering the cost, how will tech providers, OEMs, fleets and shippers move up and down the value chain in order to capture a portion of the new profit pool? What new services, companies, and workforce needs will emerge as the ecosystem changes?
4. Data Platforms: With the driver less critical for the highway journey, what data integration and management will be necessary between AV trucks, shippers, brokers, infrastructure players and governments to ensure efficient and safe operations? Who will own the data and the integration platforms?
5. Infrastructure: As tech companies begin to commercialize self-driving trucks, how will they and their fleet partners leverage ecosystem players such as real estate companies, truck stop operators and telecoms to efficiently access and upgrade infrastructure such as transfer hubs, remote maintenance and 5G connectivity? Although the roll-out of autonomous trucks will happen over an extended period, large scale capital decisions for physical and digital infrastructure investment need to take these considerations into account now.
6. Policy and Regulation: How will public perception and the subsequent local, state and federal regulations related to safety, operations and job security be positively affected by the education and outreach efforts of ecosystem players?
Autonomous truck providers and their fleet and shipper clients will need to work with real estate developers, truck stop operators, transportation management system providers and more to pilot, test, and refine operations today to ensure readiness for go-live in the future—a true mobility ecosystem. The time to prepare is now, before driverless trucks are already on the road.