Trucking is big business. According to an American Trucking Associations (ATA) report released in 2016, trucking revenues set a record of $726.4 billion in 2015 – the second year in a row that they exceeded $700 billion. ATA American Trucking Trends 2016 also reported 3.63 million Class 8 trucks – which are classified as vehicles exceeding 33,000 pounds – in operation in the United States during the year, moving 10.49 tons of freight and a whopping 70% of domestic freight.
And if their latest report is anything to go by, it’s only going to get bigger.
Announced on July 17, 2017, the ATA Freight Transportation Forecast projected over 15 billion tons of freight will be moved this year, followed by 3.4% annual growth through 2023. While growth is projected to slow after that, the ATA estimates 20.73 billion tons will be moved per year by 2028.
“As the U.S. population grows and the economy increases with it, we will see continued gains in demand for freight transportation,” said ATA Chief Economist Bob Costello. “While overall truck volumes will continue to rise, and trucking will remain the dominant freight mode – its share of freight tonnage will dip to 67.2% by 2028, with pipelines picking up most of the additional market share, and, to a lesser extent, rail intermodal.”
As the commercial transportation industry continues to grow, so too does the incentive to make it more efficient and profitable, which is fueling investment in one of the most rapidly growing technology areas: self-driving trucks.
With companies like Google and Tesla dominating the self-driving vehicle headlines, most of us are more familiar with the idea of an autonomous family car than an eighteen-wheeler, however, there are many companies out there working on both advanced driver assisted systems and self-driving trucks.
In addition to a number of startups, companies like Daimler and Volvo are investing heavily in self-driving truck technology. Even Uber is getting in on the action, purchasing six-month-old startup Otto for a reported $680 million dollars in August, 2016. The company made its first autonomous delivery and the news headlines just two months later, transporting a truck filled with Budweiser from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Although the autonomous driving was confined to the highway portion of the route, as the technology still requires a human driver for the non-highway roads, it was still big news in the world of self-driving technology.
While fully self-driving trucks are still a long way off, semi-automated trucks are already being tested, from trucks that are completely self-driving in less variable conditions like those found on the interstate, to trucks equipped with partially automated technology. Some of the latter include predictive cruise control, which uses maps, traffic, weather and other data to determine the optimal speed for both safety and fuel efficiency, and platooning, which allows two or more trucks to travel safely in a close convoy.
With platooning, the engine and breaks of the rear trucks are controlled by the lead vehicle, syncing speed between all of the vehicles, with the drivers of the following trucks operating only the steering wheel. Platooning is seen by many as the first step towards a fully-automated trucking industry, and with a fuel saving incentive of up to 20%, it may be here sooner than later.
It’s little wonder that self-driving truck technology is making big strides. This is business – big business – which means huge commercial motivation to achieve the reduced costs and efficiency gains of having computers rather than humans at the wheels of big rigs and other commercial transport vehicles. Imagine a driver that never gets tired and doesn’t have to stop for breaks – a driver that is not susceptible to human error. This is a game changer in the world of trucking; and indeed, the commercial automotive insurance industry as well.
But although autonomous commercial vehicles will improve safety, efficiency and reduce operating costs, it’s not without its issues. The first of course, is jobs. With 3.5 million people employed as commercial truck drivers in the United States, that’s a lot of people put out of work. Add to that the massive amounts of regulation that must be adopted to ensure safe operation of autonomous vehicles across all states, and the changes to liability for trucks involved in accidents, and there’s clearly many things that still need to be ironed out before self-driving commercial automobiles become part of our everyday life.
When that day comes, it will mark an interesting period for the commercial transport insurance industry. While incidents should be reduced by autonomous vehicles, there are two key areas that will need to be addressed before driverless trucks take to our highways and roads: risk and liability assessment.
Today, risk is assessed by looking at both the company and driver, from financials and credit, to vehicle maintenance, driver history and background checks, however, without a human driver at the wheel, these dynamics will need to change.
Liability assessment will also face radical changes as vehicles increasingly assume more control – and eventually full control – of commercial transport automobiles. Currently a human driver is considered at fault for the actions that caused or precipitated an accident, but when it comes to a failure by a computer, do we blame the vehicle’s owner in lieu of a driver or the manufacturer of the automated vehicle?
From regulation through to insurance, industry-wide overhauls will be required before we see commercial trucks on the road with empty driver seats. But if the current technology adoption is anything to go by, that day is coming, and for some of us, it will may well be within our lifetime.