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Driverless Trucks: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Michael Wilson | Nov 9, 2016

Since its launch in the 1980’s, autonomous cars have piqued the interests of automobile manufacturers and software developers. And with recent prototypes looking more and more ...

supply-chain-solutions.jpgSince its launch in the 1980’s, autonomous cars have piqued the interests of automobile manufacturers and software developers. And with recent prototypes looking more and more capable, debates have sprung up on the consequences that these supply chain solutions could bring. Let’s find out the good, the bad, and the ugly when it comes to this driverless technology.

Pros:

1. Improved Safety

Through GPS, sensor software, and high-powered computer processing, driverless trucks are programmed with pre-set safety guidelines that dictate how the vehicle should behave on the road. With human error—such as distraction, speeding, intoxication, or dozing off—removed from the equation, this option has some obvious safety benefits. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a landmark study by Indiana University found that only a small percentage of accidents were due to natural causes like inclement weather, road conditions, or brake failure. A whopping 93% of all car crashes investigated were caused by negligence. In this instance, driverless technology would be a huge benefit for consumers and semi truck drivers alike.

2. Cheaper Labor Costs

Though some models of autonomous trucks still require a driver's presence in the vehicle, there are also prototypes that need only one central dispatcher for an entire regional supply chain. Once this technology becomes available, it could save firms significantly in reduced labor fees, as fewer people would be needed to successfully accomplish the necessary tasks to deliver a product.

3. Less Road Congestion 

With no human limitations, driverless trucks could operate at any time of the day, week, or night. By working at off-peak times with less congested roads, companies could improve their delivery times and, as a result, make more deliveries in a given day. Consumers would also be more satisfied with better service and more products delivered on time. Additionally, all parties involved would benefit from less traffic in their commute. This makes driverless technology advantageous supply chain solutions for more than just the companies that make use of them.

Cons:

1. Ethical Considerations

When you give control of the wheel to a computer program, you're trusting that program to make the best decisions possible in the event of an emergency. This is a consideration that some businesses simply aren't comfortable with. In the event of an accident, drivers are forced make split-second decisions to minimize fatality and devastation. Whereas a human driver is able to subjectively factor in a complex array of variables and adapt their response accordingly. However, a driverless car may have to rely on pre-programmed parameters regardless of the consequences posed in any given circumstance.

2. Switching and Investment Costs

It may be a great idea for driverless vehicles to handle deliveries, but not every supplier is going to have enough resources to invest in upgrading to the technology. Take Otto for instance, a Silicon Valley startup founded by former Google employees. Otto is developing a self-driving truck upgrade kit for commercial rigs that is estimated to sell for as low as $30,000. While this price point makes it appealing to huge corporations, smaller companies might balk at investing this much.

3. Layoffs

Truckers represent 1% of the U.S. workforce. This means that 1.6 million truckers are at risk of losing their jobs to automated trucks, which, in addition to affecting the livelihood of millions of people, would be a devastating blow to the economy. It is predicted that the loss of those jobs and workers would trigger a chain reaction that would affect gas stations, highway diners, rest stops, motels, and other businesses catering to drivers.

Despite the fact that technology giants such as Google, Uber, and Tesla are racing to develop versions of their own driverless cars, the trucking industry still believes that it will take some time before we will start to see trucks without drivers. For now, companies might be better off sticking to tried and tested supply chain solutions.

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