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Where next for autonomous freight development?

The autonomous truck industry is almost ready to roll out commercially, but how might this impact the market? By Elle Farrell-Kingsley

The global logistics market reached a value of US$ 4.92tr  in 2021, according to data and statistics consultancy, Research and Markets. Furthermore, the trucking industry now represents 43% of total logistics costs globally, with a total value of US$4.1tr—projected to reach US$5.5tt by 2027. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), trucking is the prevailing mode of US inland freight transport, accounting for 67.7% of the sector and carrying 11.8 billion tons of cargo in 2019 alone. Its dominance is forecast to continue throughout the 2020s and into the 2030s. In 2019, the industry accounted for US$791.7bn in revenue in the US and is expected to grow by 40% over the next 30 years.

The logistics sector is currently experiencing a paradigm shift towards autonomous trucking. PwC revealed that roughly 90% of US manufacturers believe that fully autonomous trucks could, when mainstreamed, save up to 25% of their total trucking costs. With the potential to decrease the cost of transporting goods, a change is on the horizon for many major players in the automotive industry. Key participants in the race to secure the best autonomous technology include Mercedes, Fuso, Daimler, Einride and Waymo, which have been actively testing driverless commercial trucking services. In 2016, Volvo first demonstrated how its autonomous trucks platoon improved safety and efficiency. Later, in October 2019, the company announced that its self-driving efforts would be spun off into the Volvo Autonomous Solutions business, demonstrating the changing attitudes towards autonomous developments.

Market inefficiencies

It’s not just technology impacting trucking—a shortage of workers has hit the industry hard. According to the ATA, the sector employs 7.95 million people in the US, with more than 3.5 million working as truck drivers. In 2018, the trucking industry in the US was short of approximately 60,800 drivers, an increase of 20% from the previous year. This shortage is forecasted to increase to 160,000 by 2028.

This shortage isn’t isolated to the US either. A report by Trucking HR revealed Canada was short of 18,000 truckers during the second quarter of 2021, with analysts calculating that the country needs another 55,000 truckers by 2023. Across the pond, the UK’s Road Haulage Association (RHA) announced in 2021 that the UK was short of 100,000 truck drivers.

The Freightliner Cascadia model equipped with the Waymo Driver

It is partly these shortages that are driving demand for automation. A 2018 study by PwC indicates that autonomous trucks could be on the road up to 78% of the time, a figure nearly three times greater than Europe’s current industry average of 29%.

Enabling a truck to make driverless journeys will rely on a complex interaction between specialist hardware and software. An automated driving system (ADS) will be required to achieve this, consisting of computing hardware, software systems and a set of sensors.

Together with technology providers, OEMs are increasing their efforts to push things forwards and are beginning to join forces. Strategic partnerships between Daimler and Waymo, and TuSimple and Traton Group—both in 2020—demonstrate this commitment. These collaborations pool investments, technology and testing capability, likely resulting in faster developments than working individually. Both partnerships have announced models in the making, the Waymo Driver-equipped Cascadia for Daimler and the other unnamed for TuSimple and Traton, although an exact launch date is yet to be announced.

From trials to commercial

In pursuit of innovation, many trials and prototypes have been underway. Automakers have been running a series of pilots in the last few years: manned conditional autonomous trials, centralised remote operations, long interstate haul and geofenced distribution with regulatory supervision. But the sector could finally be reaching the next step. “I think the market is moving from being very nascent—lots of trials/prototypes—to the start of commercial operations (albeit on a very limited set of routes) in the next two to three years,” says Alastair Hayfield, Senior Research Director at Interact Analysis (IA). “This is probably the major trend right now.” IA is a data analytic company that has been observing the transport market for around five years.

I think the market is moving from being very nascent—lots of trials/prototypes—to the start of commercial operations

In June 2022, autonomous tech developer Einride received clearance from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to test its autonomous truck on US roads. The battery-electric vehicle is SAE Level 4 autonomous but also has a remote operator who assumes control if neededThe actual road trials will start in the third quarter of 2022 at a GE Appliances manufacturing facility.

Routes of just a few miles between warehouses are expected to be the first commercial use cases, with Walmart now testing smaller trucks by one of Einride’s competitors in real traffic.

Another significant trial is going on with technology provider Embark and Knight-Swift, one of the largest US freight carriers. The logistics provider, which also has partnerships with other self-driving companies, began working on a pilot programme with California-based TuSimple in early 2022 to transport daily hauls between Dallas and San Antonio, Texas.

Unicorn start-up TuSimple has secured the likes of UPS and Amazon as partners. The company currently uses retrofitted trucks to develop its self-driving technology, aiming to develop fully driverless capabilities. TuSimple stated that it has accumulated 160,000 miles since 2019 hauling freight for UPS’ North America Air Freight (NAAF) division—part of its supply chain business—and achieved 13% fuel savings for speeds between 55 miles per hour and 68 miles per hour. It plans to roll out a national US autonomous freight network by 2024.

Increased efficiency

The question of how autonomous trucks will disrupt the wider market remains an open one. “There is an argument that autonomous trucks could operate 24/7, boosting utilisation and meaning fewer trucks are needed,” Hayfields notes. “On the other hand, if autonomous trucks are more efficient, it might support an increase in freight volumes and mean that even more trucks are required.” However, he cautions that neither scenario is likely to materialise until after 2035.

Autonomous vehicles are more efficient than manually-driven vehicles because they are better able to control speed and road position, as well as anticipate traffic

With players such as Iveco and Nikola bringing in different variables, such as hydrogen and mixed fuel cells, he doesn’t believe the powertrain is a major factor in autonomous freight. “The choice of powertrain will come down to the duty cycle of the vehicle—how far it needs to go and the weight of what it needs to carry,” he says.

“Autonomous vehicles are more efficient than manually-driven vehicles because they are better able to control speed and road position, as well as anticipate traffic. This may play well for battery electric trucks, as it will help maximise the battery range, but really automation helps all powertrains perform more efficiently,” says Hayfield.

At a time when there are major shortages of workers and the transport industry is actively exploring all avenues to reduce costs, the efficiency of autonomous trucks could be the ultimate solution.

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