If you think it will cost too much, take jobs from drivers, or can’t be trusted on the road, we’ve got some good news for you.
What’s happening: Even as autonomous (AV) trucking gains ground, some myths persist about this new and promising tech.
Why it matters: U.S. Xpress is working with several AV developers to test new technologies and help pave a path for trucking industry adoption.
The bottom line: Careful regulation and extensive testing of the technology will mean a measured, long-term rollout before we’ll see widespread use, but the future of autonomous trucking is on the way.
Even as AV gains ground across our industry, some myths persist about this new and promising way to move goods better. We sat down with U.S. Xpress CEO Eric Fuller to talk about the partnerships we’ve built with AV leaders, how these smart trucks will offer more capacity for our customers, and where he sees this road taking our industry.
Q: There are plenty of myths out there about autonomous trucking, but let’s start with a big one. Will autonomous trucks replace professional drivers?
A: We will always need professional drivers. In the future, some of their jobs may change as a result of autonomous trucks being able to take on the longest, most arduous hauls. However, that’s likely to mean a better quality of life for many professional drivers because of more consistent schedules and home time, in addition to meaning more reliable service to our customers. It’s also worth noting that without autonomous trucks, we’ll need a million more drivers by 2035. Autonomous technology will be a key to easing the capacity crunch and driver shortages. In short, the landscape will look different, but professional drivers will still be a critical element of moving goods by truck.
Q: The idea of a big rig rolling without a person at the wheel sounds a little scary. Is this technology safe?
A: One thing to consider when you ask this question is where and how autonomous trucking is being developed, and where and how it will probably be used. In our industry, AV will have limited applications for a period of time, mainly long-haul lanes in the Southern half and Western portion of the country where there’s less traffic, fewer people, and long views of the road ahead. A lot of the work of trucking happens in cities or high-traffic areas, and those spaces are probably a good 20-plus years out from being places we might eventually see autonomous trucks. There’s a tremendous amount of testing that’s happening, and it’s happening in very controlled ways. There’s also the technology to consider. Autonomous trucks are extremely smart, and getting smarter all the time. I’ve seen this technology in action, and it has very long-range visibility as well as predictive functions that can scan the landscape and understand what might happen next based on very subtle clues from other vehicles. Autonomous trucks collect an immense amount of data at all times, and run nonstop calculations based on what they see. They also have a lot of redundancy built in, so there is a fallback safety plan for pretty much any scenario.
Q: Is autonomous trucking too expensive to be practical?
A: There’s no question that it’s expensive. A tractor today costs about $165,000, where an autonomous truck probably runs $275,000 or $300,000, not to mention the cost of the network to operate the equipment. For these reasons, I expect autonomous trucking will be the domain of larger companies. But while the up-front costs are a barrier, they’re an investment in an incredible efficiency gain that can benefit both carriers and their customers. We can realistically see 80,000 to 90,000 paid miles a year from each truck with a solo driver. We estimate we can increase this to 200,000 to 300,000 productive miles a year with autonomous trucks. That means we can quickly recover additional costs of self-driving technology. If we’re able to achieve 200,000 miles a year per truck, the fixed operating costs will be reduced by half, while capacity increases. Taking into consideration other overhead, we can likely see a 20%-30% decrease in overall cost per mile. So, yes, it’s expensive, but there’s a significant payoff for everyone.
Q: How is U.S. Xpress involved in advancing autonomous trucking?
A: We’re engaged with several leaders in autonomous trucking. The newest example is our partnership with Embark Trucks. We’ve joined the Embark Partner Development Program, adding our terminals to the Embark Coverage Map. That means U.S. Xpress properties could become part of a pioneering network of transfer points where freight from driverless, long-haul trucks is transferred to driver-operated trucks for first- and last-mile delivery. Since 2019, we’ve also worked with TuSimple, and in 2021, we began testing its autonomous technology on select lanes for a few of our customers. In early 2022, we partnered with Aurora to study the best ways to find commercial applications for autonomous vehicle technology. Aurora gathers data from our Variant fleet to study where and on what types of routes its artificial intelligence-enabled driving system could be deployed most effectively. And in March 2022, we announced a partnership with Kodiak Robotics to launch the first ever level four autonomous freight delivery service between Dallas and Atlanta using Kodiak’s self-driving trucks. As part of this partnership, we completed a pilot running 24 hours a day for nearly five and-a-half days, traveling approximately 6,350 miles and delivering eight loads between Dallas and Atlanta.
Q: When can we expect to see autonomous trucks on the road in significant numbers?
A: The timeline for bringing autonomous to market really depends on who you ask. At U.S. Xpress, we’re a little more optimistic and believe we’ll see fully autonomous trucks running lanes within the next five years, with a more measured rollout in the coming decade. Other carriers see this as a much longer timeline, with autonomous trucks running with safety drivers onboard 10 years from now. Everyone agrees, though, that the future of autonomous trucking in on its way.