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Autonomous trucks are coming to the mainstream sooner than you think

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With a high-profile automated beer-run already accomplished, the technology is set to reshape shipping

We may appear on the cusp of a driverless future, but the reality of automated vehicle technology suggests we’re not quite ready to be magically whisked about town by our smart cars. Robotic drivers will be all over our the road soon enough, and one of the first examples that makes an impact won’t be a sexy Tesla sedan. It may just be a big rig.

Automated trucking doesn’t sound nearly as glamorous as a computerized chauffeur—see the recent, highly publicized automated beer run by Anheuser-Busch—but it could truly be game-changing. More, better, faster, and cheaper deliveries could cascade across the economy; imagine Amazon Prime on steroids. And, the shift may come much faster than you think.

According to Ravi Shanker, a lead analyst for automated vehicles at Morgan Stanley, automated trucking technology will change the entire freight business, from the rail and truck industries to the last-mile delivery that come to our homes and offices. Safety and application challenges still exist, of course, but the tech appears poised to transform how we move things across the country.

Shanker’s rosy assessment is based on some intriguing numbers. First, there’s a lot of money in hauling freight—the trillion-dollar business moves many of the things we use on a daily basis—and 70-75 percent of that is done with trucks. There’s a huge advantage in getting automated drivers, who can work 24 hours a day, involved in those deliveries, and improving logistics for companies such as Amazon.

That big profit motive means competition, giving trucking operators a motive to update their fleets fast. A current shortage of truck drivers adds one more reason to get robots in the driver’s seat. The United States has 10 million trucks on the road, so it won’t happen overnight. But automation will likely happen a lot faster with trucks than it will with cars.

The U.S. has a staggering 240 million-plus cars on the road right now; without some huge government-backed incentive or program, we’ll see a majority of trucks take the technological leap well before cars. Plus, the cost of automated vehicle technology, which runs between $5,000 and $10,000 per vehicle, seems like a smarter investment for a new truck, which runs $125,000-$150,000. Owners can make back the investment with more efficient cross-country runs (studies suggest a savings of 15-20 percent per trip). AV tech may cause more sticker shock with new passenger cars, which currently run roughly $33,000 on average.

Otto
Appearing in a rear view mirror in the near future.
Courtesy of Otto

While everyone’s focused on Google’s driverless tests and Ubers circling Pittsburgh, the trucking industry has become increasingly sophisticated and tech savvy. A mine in a remote part of Australia already moves iron ore with automated trucks. Tesla announced plans to start making trucks next year and Daimler, which tested an autonomous truck in Nevada last year, continues to refine its connected trucking software. Silicon Valley firm Peloton Technologies has developed advanced platooning software, which lets trucks “link” up in lines while on the highway. And perhaps most newsworthy, Uber invested $680 million in automated truck company Otto, which not only employs experts from Google’s automated car program, but is currently developing a freight service that, yes, could become the Uber of trucking.

What does this mean for the consumer? More automated drivers means less congestion on roadways, less pollution in the air, and safer highways (it also of course, means less human drivers and a significant loss of jobs). Other companies have also been looking at incorporating last-mile solutions into this smarter shipping industry which can literally bring items to your door: Google just patented a concept for a driverless truck that deliveries items right to your door, and a company called Starship developed a scooter-sized delivery bot, theoretically deployed from a smart truck, that rides down the sidewalk to deliver your packages.

Early versions of this technology, such as guided highway driving already exist. Shanker predicts the tech will roll out over the next few years. Platooning will be possible by 2017-2018, and by 2020, the first fully autonomous trucks will go on sale. After that, drivers will see groups of automated big rigs rolling down the highway, with a lead driver controlling four or five other vehicles in its wake. Let’s just hope the robot drivers don’t forget to honk back.