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Driverless trucking is here

An automated truck made its first delivery.
/ Industry News & Trends /

By: Phil Sneed

Driverless trucking technology made history during the last full week of October.

A truck operated by Otto, a subsidiary of Uber, completed a 120-mile journey throughout Colorado to deliver a shipment of beer for one of America's largest beer distributors. The semitrailer drove on the interstate between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

Otto worked with the Colorado Department of Transportation to work out the finer details of the journey. Otto's truck didn't exactly make the trek on its own. According to CNN Money, it was escorted by three vehicles from Otto and four Colorado State Patrol cars. Even the executive director of the Colorado DOT, Shailen Bhatt, was along for the ride.

But the trucking industry can't discount this moment in history. In fact, the distributor reached out to Otto about the possibility of working together months ago. And after the delivery, Bhatt was enthusiastic.

"This is a big deal. Transportation is being transformed by technology," said Bhatt. "For me, it comes back to this: Technology can help us save lives."

Driverless trucking represents a natural evolution from the passenger vehicles that do not require a human behind the wheel.

"Driverless trucking represents a natural evolution from the passenger vehicles."

Current and future worries

New technological innovations always come with a level of excitement and worries.

Driverless trucking can be seen by fleet executives and others in the industry as a threat to employment at a time when there's an ongoing driver shortage. According to an infographic from Trucks.com, there are 48,000 current driver openings in the U.S. Over the next nine years, the number of available positions is expected to increase to nearly 890,000. It's also no secret a majority of current drivers are between the ages of 45 and 54, meaning a large number of them will likely be retiring in the coming years.

When automated semitrailers are thrown into the mix, there's a natural worry as to what this means for jobs. However, the Colorado delivery test may provide a sign of how companies may proceed with driverless trucks and humans.

During the trip, the driver sat in the passenger seat and even went into the vehicle's back cabin to monitor the truck.

An automated truck and driver can theoretically work in tandem as a result. The driver can spend time behind the wheel but when it comes time for a break, the truck can then take over. Lior Ron, Otto's co-founder, said this combination then allows a truck to be productive throughout a trip.

"If we work to perfect technology, we can shift a lot of these freight hauls to the dead of night and take advantage of our Interstate system when it's underused," Ron told CNN Money.

The future is now

Automated vehicles have been in the works for many years. Google has famously been working on its version, and now ridesharing services are developing the technology on their own.

In a column for Trucks.com, Joe Rajkovacz, the director of government affairs and communications with the Western States Trucking Association, said he believes automated trucking can be a benefit for the industry. He stated that once the technology becomes marketable, small-business fleets and owner-operators can benefit the most, economically.

Rajkovacz cited an example of how many of today's semitrailers are connected to the internet that allow drivers to easily communicate with dispatch, customers and family. He also believes many drivers would welcome the opportunity to sleep at night while the truck is still driving.

"Small-business fleets and owner-operators can benefit the most."

Additionally, the current state of automated technology must be examined to see that drivers can work with the technology. Automation has made immense strides guiding heavy-duty vehicles on rural interstates, which are easier to navigate. What automation hasn't perfected yet is driving through cities and more congested spots.

This therefore opens a potential opportunity for drivers to get behind the wheel when there is more traffic while letting the truck handle itself on the open roads.

Furthermore, the electronic logging mandate can work with automated trucks while still ensuring deliveries arrive on time. Once a driver has logged his or her hours for the day, they can head to the sleeper cabin for some rest while en route to the final destination.

Automated trucking did not come from nowhere. The technology has slowly been making its way into the industry, and in late October, the first automated delivery was made. While much of the technology remains unproven, there's no denying it will make a large impact in the years to come.