Follow the Money – Autonomous Vehicles

In the 1976 film, All the President’s Men, an anonymous source advises Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to “follow the money” to get to the bottom of the Watergate break-in and cover-up. They do and their relentless investigation eventually leads to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon. What, you ask, does the Watergate scandal have to do with transportation? It’s simple. Follow the money. Because if you do that you may get a better sense of the next breakthrough in the autonomous vehicle market.

Turn on your television or read the newspaper and you’ll see story after story about advances occurring in the world of self-driving cars, but cars may actually be the hare in this hare and tortoise race to get to the autonomous finish line. The tortoise? Trucks. Yes, according to some analysts, freight-hauling tractor-trailers may hit the road sooner than self-driving cars. In fact, some are predicting that we could see some autonomous commercial vehicles on the road within the next thee years. While that may be a bit optimistic, the trucking market is ripe for disruption.  And investors are taking note.

In just the past few months, Kodiak Robotics raised $40 million dollars to test trucks equipped with artificial intelligence. Embark, a self-driving truck company, recently raised $30 million. Another autonomous tech start-up, TuSimple, took in more than $80 million dollars from investors. It is promoting its development of a perception system that allows trucks to see 1,000 meters down the highway. And don’t discount Alphabet’s Waymo and a new company called kache.ai, among others.

According to the American Trucking Association, trucks move $10 billion tons of freight each year in the United States. That is almost 71% of all domestic freight tonnage. The industry operates on razor-thin margins, and the biggest expense is driver compensation which accounts for nearly half of any carrier’s cost per mile. Therefore, trucking companies who aim to dominate the market are hoping autonomous trucks can help eliminate some of their personnel costs.

In addition to saving money, there are other benefits to self-driving trucks. Transit experts hope that automated trucks will substantially reduce accidents. Currently there are approximately 4,000 large truck fatalities a year in the United States -- some of which are a result of driver fatigue. A tired driver, however, is irrelevant if a truck can rely on artificial intelligence. Moreover, the trucking industry is currently experiencing a driver shortage. Clearly, automated trucks will need far fewer “drivers.” Experts also believe self-driving trucks, which will rely on their on-board computer technology will use less fuel, thus producing an environmental benefit.  

And believe it or not, it may be easier to transition trucks into self-driving vehicles than it will be to transition personal vehicles because, according to the MIT Technology Review, long-haul trucking is simpler than the day-to-day driving we do in our cars. On the highway, there are no pedestrians, no cross traffic and no traffic lights to contend with. Therefore, the Review predicts self-driving trucks will hit the roads before their automobile counterparts.

Of course, there are hurdles that must be jumped before driverless tractor-trailers hit the road.  Trucks are the behemoths of the vehicle world, and their sheer weight alone increases the challenges of transitioning them to the driverless model. They require substantially longer distances than cars to come to a complete stop, and they are far too large to engage in last minute maneuvers to avoid obstacles in the road. Thus, self-driving trucks will require sophisticated technology before becoming completely autonomous.

In the meantime, tech start-ups are looking at ways to develop systems that can, at least, take control of a truck during the long-periods of boring highway driving that the vehicles routinely encounter. And like the hare, the trucking industry will continue to move inexorably forward toward the self-driving finish line. After all, investors are betting on it

 

 

 

Shivani Rajan