How Autonomous Freight Transport Will Transform Logistics

David, CEO, DB Schenker

David, CEO, DB Schenker

On top of ongoing issues with the global supply chain, the US logistics industry is up against an ongoing truck driver shortage and rising shipping costs. This is due to many factors, including fuel costs and the higher wages and benefits companies are putting out to attract drivers.

With consumer demand increasing, the truck driver shortage isn’t expected to alleviate any time soon. Several factors exacerbated the shortage, including a lack of young talent entering the field and the current pool of drivers reaching retirement age.

Logistics companies have options to combat this problem, including offering more competitive wages, sign-on bonuses, and better benefits packages, but there is another option. Autonomous freight can be a solution to relieve the burden of the truck driver shortage and meet the current demands.

How the Truck Driver Shortage Impacts Logistics

Based on research from the American Trucking Association, the 2021 driver shortage capped at 80,000 drivers. If demand continues to exceed availability, the industry could be short 160,000 drivers by 2030.

This shortage isn’t caused by only one factor, however. Current drivers are approaching retirement age and fewer young candidates are venturing into trucking, due to the demands and poor work-life balance. Nearly 25% of the current commercial driving workforce will reach retirement eligibility in the next decade.

Furthermore, electronic logging device (ELD) mandates, which impact how many hours a driver can be behind the wheel, put more pressure on the current driver pool. The FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse also restricts around 65,000 drivers from driving commercially.

Industry demand is increasing and drivers are retiring without a steady flow of young candidates or qualified drivers to replace them.

Are Competitive Wages and Benefits the Answer?

Logistics companies are trying to combat the truck driver shortage by making the field more attractive to young, qualified candidates. Companies are offering competitive wages, enhanced benefits packages, and generous sign-on bonuses to bring in new drivers.

The compensation isn’t the only problem, however. Younger candidates are often deterred from the field because of the poor work-life balance and the time away from home. Companies are working to correct these issues by offering better work-life balance, improved facilities, and lower wait times on top of attractive compensation packages.

Autonomous Freight Can Be a Solution

Autonomous freight, or self-driving trucks, are an all-inclusive remedy to the ongoing truck driver shortage, the rising costs and demand for shipping, and the hazards of the road. The technology has a long way to go before it can be a viable solution, however.

Self-driving trucks have benefits over human drivers. They can circumvent ELD mandates, which limit truck drivers to eight hours on the road with no break and 11 hours of total daily driving. Self-driving trucks can operate up to 17 hours daily to keep goods moving.

There are limitations to employing autonomous trucks, however. At this time, these vehicles are primarily used in the Sun Belt states because they’re unreliable in extreme weather conditions. In areas where there’s intense fog or heavy snowfall, a human driver is the better choice. The technology simply can’t navigate effectively in these conditions.

The infrastructure isn’t available for autonomous trucking to have widespread adoption. All self-driving vehicles, not just commercial trucks, need high-speed 5G internet connections to facilitate proper communications between vehicles, drivers, and infrastructure. With much of the country without proper 5G infrastructure, these trucks are limited in where they can operate effectively.

Labor unions are getting involved and expressing concerns with autonomous freight. They fear that automation will displace as many as 3 million workers, even if human drivers will never be permanently excluded from the equation. They’re urging lawmakers to draft strict regulations for autonomous vehicles for not only job loss concerns, but safety issues that may arise.

These groups are putting pressure on Congress to enact policies to prioritize safety, create workforce training and a job-loss mitigation plan, and to define the scope of autonomous vehicle technology. They’re also asking for lawmakers to ensure that implementing this technology will create middle-class US manufacturing jobs to help workers they displace.

Still, multiple major manufacturers are working to perfect automated trucking technology. One of the world’s largest trucking companies, Daimler, has plans to invest $573 million in autonomous trucks. Tesla also unveiled plans to launch its own autonomous trucks, and Aurora, another major player, created its own autonomous truck operating system.

All things considered, it’s possible that a hybrid solution with human drivers and automated trucks is the best solution to address the multifaceted challenges in the current market.

A hybrid solution would use human drivers and self-driving trucks on different routes. The factors impacting the truck driver shortage aren’t going anywhere – they’re only worsening – and consumer demand is on the rise.

The technology to support and optimize autonomous freight hasn’t caught up to the need, but both human drivers and autonomous vehicles can bridge the gaps and complement each other’s limitations.

For example, autonomous trucks can be used for long-haul, cross-country routes in mild climates, like the Sun Belt states, and can spend more time in operation than a human driver. Conversely, human drivers can operate trucks in crowded urban areas that are too complex for automation at this point, as well as for short routes, truck unloading and loading, and areas without sufficient infrastructure.

Several companies are testing out solutions to handle the trucking shortage and the possibilities with autonomous freight. DB Schenker, a logistics provider on the cutting edge of logistics technology implementation, is testing automated trucks and advanced visibility software to stay agile in the current market.

As this situation develops, logistics companies that rely on trucking for transporting goods should stay abreast of the changes and developments with autonomous freight. If viable, autonomous freight can be used to integrate into current operations, or shippers can partner with third-party logistics providers that have the existing technology in operation. These providers understand the challenges in the market and can offer guidance and solutions to adapt to the situation as it develops.

Looking to the Future

Autonomous freight is a trend that’s offering real solutions to the challenges of the truck driver shortage in the logistics industry. Hybrid solutions that combine the capabilities of human drivers and autonomous trucks can ensure a balance of strengths and limitations, allowing goods to be delivered on time to meet consumer demand and move the industry forward.

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