Are self driving semi trucks really going to change the industry?

by Thomas Kitchen

Staff Writer

The following story was written by a student on the staff of The Jaguar Times as part of Hilliard Bradley High School’s Journalism Production course.

A TuSimple self-driving semi truck, a major player in the developing industry. Credit: TuSimple.
A TuSimple self-driving semi truck is a major player in the developing industry. Credit: TuSimple.

Over the last few years, Companies have been springing up and racing to build self-driving semi trucks and cars. These companies hope to bring a world with fewer accidents, less carbon emissions that contribute to climate change, and around the clock movement of freight. However the technology is years from widespread use, as companies have only recently begun running autonomous trucks without a safety driver. When the technology is ready for widespread use, it could be beneficial to quickly fix supply chain issues like the one the US currently faces. While at the same time, according to Labor Unions standing against the widespread use of self-driving semi trucks, advocating that they will remove half a million jobs in the US.

The U.S. is currently short about 80,000 truck drivers. Self-driving semis are hoping to alleviate that lack of drivers by keeping drivers doing runs that are closer to home and take less than a day. While using autonomous trucks for long haul runs that can keep drivers away from home for more than two weeks. Startup companies like Aurora and TuSimple are among some of the leaders in development of autonomous trucks. These companies have major investors like FedEx, UPS, Toyota, and Werner, all looking to remove the middleman and cut costs.

Although, how much of the middleman does autonomous trucks really remove? The biggest goal of autonomous trucks is to remove the driver's salary of about $45,000. One of the reasons Trucking businesses fail in the US is because of too many middlemen. Though autonomous trucks remove the driver, how many skilled workers will a company need to maintain the trucks now loaded with technology and how much will their salary be? These autonomous trucks will be constantly operating increasing maintenance costs. The trucking industry is an industry littered with expenses.

A study written by the analytic company Roland Berger in 2016 predicted expenses to drop about 15%-20% with autonomous trucks. The study however failed to recognize possible economic impacts such as, increase truck utilization and remote operations. Another problem with autonomous trucks is the cost of the truck itself. Right now the cost of a 2022 International Prostar high rise sleeper truck is $145,000. The price tag of an autonomous truck is still unclear as the technology is still infantile. According to an article written by CNN in july of 2021, the self-driving technology will add about $50,000 to the cost of the truck. Bringing the average cost for a brand new truck to roughly $200,000. This cost is nothing for big players like UPS and FedEx, but for a small company with only a few used trucks the costs are a lot. though the technology is still young and cost will go down with time. There will still be a need for drivers for years to come.

An important part of the development of this technology are the many questions that come to peoples minds. Are people ready to share the road with a vehicle that weighs 25 tons and doesn’t have a driver? Are you willing to put your life in the hands of a computer? Caleb Bennett, a Junior at Hilliard Bradley High School, says “no, I would not feel safe sharing the road with a self driving semi truck. I don’t like the idea of being in a situation where the semi truck could potentially not see me due to weather, or a glitch in software despite safety regulations.”

The US government has stated that it will not stand in the way of progress and innovation but the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been slow to make new laws and regulations for autonomous trucks. Roughly 11 percent of all accidents involving a semi truck have led to a fatality. When the startup company TuSimple completed its first entirely Autonomous run of a semi truck CEO, Cheng Lu said, “It’s very significant because it demonstrates that we’re safe.” Not exactly though as the technology is still new it has yet to show reliable data over thousands of trips of how safe the technology really is. However it's important to remember that only time will tell.