Truck Tech

Autonomous Trucks: A Disruptive Positive Force Coming but Fast

Blog commentary by Jack Roberts, Senior Editor

April 19, 2017

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The Olli is a fully autonmous, fast-transit, 12-passenger bus under development by Local Motors and an example of the new types of transportation cited in a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Association. Photo: Autoblog
The Olli is a fully autonmous, fast-transit, 12-passenger bus under development by Local Motors and an example of the new types of transportation cited in a new report from the U.S. Energy Information Association. Photo: Autoblog

A new report issued by the U.S. Energy Information Administration on autonomous vehicles first popped up on my radar screen in this Forbes article this week. The report is far-reaching in its scope and, while it’s easy to say that automotive vehicles are disruptive technology, the full impact of what that actually means starts to come into focus as you go through it.

The reality is this technology has the potential to utterly transform just about any aspect of our society today you care to name. The report, which you can be found here, is well worth your time. But in the meantime, consider some of its more interesting – and trucking-oriented findings.

The report backs up my own view that heavy-duty, long-haul commercial vehicles will be the first large group of early autonomous technology adopters simply due to the potential for efficiency gains and lower operating costs. Other likely developments the report predicts include:

  • Truck platooning provides most of the fuel economy benefits associated with autonomous trucks. Platooning can be carried out by Level One autonomous vehicle technology and the industry can expect to see it deployed far earlier than more advanced autonomous technology. (This jibes with an interview I did with Peloton CEO Josh Switkes last week, which you can read here.)
  • The real driver of the rate of adoption for high levels of autonomous driving technology in trucking is dependent on the driver shortage and associated cost issues. If these trends do not improve, it is likely the industry will move toward those greater degrees of autonomous tech.
  • The report found that truck platooning has the potential to ease congestion on highway corridors, since it does away with the “accordion” effect of having lines of vehicles speed and slow down in unpredictable ways. At a market penetration rate of around 10% for truck platooning, the report’s authors predict a noticeable increase in roadway throughputs and associated increased vehicle efficiencies.
  • Drivers in trucks operating in autonomous mode will also be able to engage in route optimization and seek out freight in real time, which the report says will increase trucking revenue, reduce miles driven, and possibly reduce the number of trucks required to haul cargo, while increasing the cargo density of the trucks that are moving freight.

 It also turns out autonomous technology is a winner from the fuel economy standpoint, according to the report. Among its findings on this front:

  • By 2050, fuel consumption could be reduced by as much as 18% for commercial light trucks, buses and heavy-duty “freight trucks.”
  • Autonomous technology could deliver fuel economy increases as early as this year, with 4.5% increases possible by 2030 and 14% by 2040.
  • The report notes, however, that it is also likely that as autonomous technology increases overall vehicle safety and reduces accidents, speed limits may increase to around 80 mph, which could cut into those predicted fuel economy numbers somewhat.
  • For commercial light trucks and buses, the maximum fuel savings will likely be realized at Level 4 or 5 automation levels as a result of more efficient traffic flow through urban areas. Savings are estimated to stem from drive profile and traffic flow smoothing along with the deployment of Level 4-5 fully autonomous vehicles.

 And speaking of safety, one of the more interesting storylines associated with the rise of autonomous vehicles is the impact it will have on the insurance industry. And the report had a few interesting findings on that front as well:

  • Currently, most insurance industry executives do not believe autonomous technology will have an impact on their businesses for another decade or so, although many look for major changes to their businesses very soon after that 10-year mark.
  • 94% of insurance executives expect liability coverage to change as a result of autonomous vehicles, while 52% expect property damage coverage to change.
  • 84% of those executives expect claim frequencies to decrease, and 71% expect premium per policy to decrease.
  • Some insurance companies, such as Allstate, are already considering new revenue streams to offset expect losses in vehicle coverage, including coverage for mobile phones or selling data from tracked driver behavior.

Taken as a whole, it’s quite possible we’re now living in the waning months of the pre-autonomous transportation era. Even taking this fascinating report into consideration, it is very likely all of us – even so-called “experts” on this emerging technology – are vastly underestimating the rate and pace of change across our society and culture that is coming our way fast.   

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Author Bio

Jack Roberts

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Senior Editor

As a licensed commercial driver, HDT senior editor Jack Roberts often reports on ground-breaking technical developments and trends in an industry being transformed by technology. With more than two decades covering trucking, in Truck Tech he offers his insights on everything from the latest equipment, systems and components, to telematics and autonomous vehicle technologies.


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