I’ve written before about the benefits automated vehicles (AV) could hold for the transportation industry—significant cost savings, increased safety, and enhanced efficiency are just a few. Specifically, AV trucks are one area which might hold a lot of value. For the trucking industry itself, the magnitude of the impact AV trucks could have is large—AV trucks can operate twice as many hours a day. This is especially important with the high projected growth in truck traffic and the severe driver shortage the trucking industry faces that shows no signs of slowing down. And while there may be some concern among those in the industry, it is unlikely that AV will “steal” anyone’s job. Rather, it will fill in the gaps caused by the shortage—and even create new opportunities within the industry.
AV represents one of the biggest innovations the industry has seen since the rise of the diesel engine. Cost savings include fuel, wear on tires, and insurance benefits due to increased safety. All of this is before even mentioning environmental benefits. As the private sector is called upon for support and investment in strategies to combat global climate change, the decreased emissions AV trucks can offer may be pivotal.
Can AV trucks combat climate change?
I am currently working on several truck safety and mobility projects. I’ve learned some pretty interesting information related to truck emissions in the course of my research, from several industry presentations and sources.
According to the Federal Highway Administration Freight and Air Quality Handbook, emissions from freight delivery make up almost a third of the nation’s transportation greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve learned that trucks waiting in stop-and-go traffic, idling, and moving back into traffic contribute a disproportionately high amount of motor vehicle emissions and wasted fuel. Also, the high number of trucks waiting at truck safety, weight and inspection stations cause unnecessary delays, thus increasing emissions harmful to the environment.
So how do we mitigate this? Zero-emission trucks are currently limited by a range of about 500 miles. Net-zero CO2 emissions from trucks are expected to reduce by half by 2040, but are not expected to largely cease until 2070 or beyond. Eventually technological improvements will increase the range, but infrastructure improvements such as charging stations, and perhaps hydrogen fueling stations are needed. These improvements could potentially be implemented at weight stations, truck parking, and rest stops to make them accessible to drivers.
As we can see from this data, not only are trucks major contributors to motor vehicle emissions, but inefficiencies within the trucking industry worsen the problem. AV trucks are more efficient as they can operate twice as many hours a day. In addition, AV trucks create opportunities for more truck platooning, where the first truck has a human driver, and the rest of the convoy consists of AV trucks. This will further reduce emissions due to greater fuel efficiencies. All of this suggests that AV trucks could be instrumental as the private sector strives to curb emissions and combat global climate change. However, the infrastructure needed to implement these changes effectively will require significant investment.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Of course, we are not talking about any quick changes here. This shift will take place over a long period time. With millions of dollars of trucks on the road, it’ll take upwards of 20 years to replace all the trucks. And that’s before we even consider some of the other challenges we’ll face as we look at realistically shifting towards driverless trucks. These challenges include:
- The massive shift in job duties that will need to occur.
- Machine Learning challenges. AV trucking comes down to the ability of algorithms to generalize—we’d need a wide and extensive range of testing to get these correct.
- Large scale changes that will need to come through not only the private sector, but the government as well if we want to accelerate AV capabilities.
- Vehicle-to-everything (V2X) and dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) technology is extremely difficult to deploy to scale. This is due to the need for standardization industry-wide for this technology to work.
- This standardization will require seismic shifts in infrastructure. No longer can one company build something and change the world. It will require complicated policy changes and extensive infrastructure coordination. This is a change from even 10-15 years ago!
So, we know this is not going to happen overnight. I’ve heard it said that once you accept you need better infrastructure to be safe, you doom your improvement to the rate of improvement in infrastructure, which takes decades. So where do we begin? Regulatory! Nothing can happen without first tackling the regulatory framework. If we want to see any progress, we must start from here.
Deploying pilots in controlled environments was the easy part. Realistically, we are looking out to at least 2024 before we start to see driverless trucks. Looking at the long view, the road ahead is undoubtedly more difficult. But as we face a swiftly changing climate, we believe the benefits this technology holds for us are worth it.