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Report: Autonomous Vehicles Could Save Trucking $300 Billion in Labor Costs

November 21, 2017

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Autonomous technology could offer trucking net savings between $100 billion and $125 billion, according to a report by Wall Street analysts. Photo: Jack Roberts
Autonomous technology could offer trucking net savings between $100 billion and $125 billion, according to a report by Wall Street analysts. Photo: Jack Roberts

The trucking industry could save hundreds of billions of dollars in labor costs annually if it continues to embrace self-driving technology.

That’s according to a Wall Street analyst firm, as reported in Business Insider earlier this week.

According to the Bernstein analyst group:

  • Full automation of the trucking industry could save $300 billion in labor costs, according to Bernstein analysts.
  • The net savings are likely to be between $100 billion and $125 billion because the costs of using self-driving trucks would offset some of the savings from wages.

"At face value, full automation of the $719B trucking market results in ~$300B in potential labor savings," a team of Bernstein analysts, including David Vernon said, according to Business Insider. "This benefit is expected to grow due to structural challenges in the labor market," including a rise in trucking rates after 2000 partly caused by labor shortages and regulatory changes.

The report noted the then-pending launch of Tesla’s new, all-electric truck, which will come standard with autonomous vehicle technology including platooning capabilities. Additionally, the analysts pointed to recent reports that autonomous technology company Embark is already operating autonomous trucks between Texas and California — though with a human rider. Mercedes-Benz first put a self-driving big-rig on a public road in 2015, and Uber started its efforts in the space a year later.

According to Bernstein analysts, nearly half of the trucking industry's costs — 43% — go toward labor. Fuel is the second-largest cost, at 21%.

"The gains from automating heavy truck activity have far-reaching implications across the broader transportation landscape," Vernon said. "Companies in our coverage that will benefit from this include UPS (high-cost union truck labor in line haul and feeder operations), FedEx (truck-intensive ground network), J.B. Hunt Transportation Services (across services)."

However the analysts noted, cost savings from operating without drivers would most likely be put back into what it takes to replace them. That means the net savings for the industry are likely to be between $100 billion and $125 billion, Vernon said.

"While the savings potential is large, new costs will be created out of automation (IT maintenance fees, more working hours dedicated to truck maintenance, higher taxes to fund the highway cost infrastructure) that will offset some of the potential cost benefits," Vernon said.

Vernon added that the lower costs might not necessarily pass through in the form of lower trucking rates. That's because the biggest beneficiary of cost savings would be better-capitalized firms with the resources to dive into the new technology. Smaller firms, which have a marginal influence on market rates, may be left with higher costs that they'd pass on to their clients.

In all, the effect of the savings may still be too far in the future for investors to take advantage of right now, Vernon said. Partially automated platoons of trucks closely following each other could be rolled out over the next five to seven years. But full implementation of technological changes that would save companies the big bucks could take up to 20 years, he said.

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