Silicon valley’s revolution in the trucking industry

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If you still think that the efforts of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are focused solely on the IT industry, you are way behind the current trend. The sky is the limit is literally where the Valley is going. And while it aims to break into space, the roads on Earth are still a hot topic. Today, however, we talk less about passenger vehicles and more about trucking.

The Trucking Industry Transformation

It seems like all efforts towards transforming the trucking industry involve the introduction of self-driving functionalities. While this seemed like a crazy idea a decade ago, today there is a new expert popping out every year. We know that automobile companies like Volvo and Daimler have been on this for years. Now, however, companies from different industries are becoming the top competitors in this field. And trucks are the next thing they want to disrupt.

Self-driving is not an end itself, however. These innovative companies are actually focused on finding ways how the lack of drivers behind the wheel can solve already existing issues in the trucking industry.

The operational efficiency 

We all know Uber. The company that disrupted not only the taxi industry but everything related to modern-day transportation. After changing the game for taxis and delivery companies, Uber is headed towards the trucking industry. Ever since they acquired the startup company Otto in August 2016, the company is working hard to upgrade trucks and the way we deliver goods and materials.

According to Otto, self-driving trucks will be more efficient because they wouldn’t waste fuel by accelerating and braking as frequently as drivers do. Moreover, with the option of self-driving, a truck can be on the road 24/7. This will save time but it will also let drivers take naps during long trips.

Another company that emerged recently is a startup called Peloton. The technology they develop will allow trucks to “platoon” – to follow each other on a highway while still keeping a safe distance. By pressing a button, the system will automatically find a truck with the same technology nearby. When the trucks get together, the speed of the second will be controlled by the first, meaning that when the leading truck brakes, the second one will automatically brake, too. The company proved that this technology saves about 7% on fuel efficiency.

The safety on the road 

Currently, Otto is under suit by its biggest competitor, Waymo, a company owned by Google’s parent Alphabet. According to many, the company is currently the leader in self-driving cars. Recently, Waymo made a claim that they are exploring the ways their know-how can transform trucking industry. They focus their interest in trucks mainly on the need for safer transportation. According to the NHTSA, truck crashes kill 4,000 people on US roads every year, and injure 116,000 more. Consider what causes the majority of car crashes: human error. Be it due to fatigue or poor choices. With autonomous driving, such errors can be eliminated.

The company’s experience in driverless cars is a huge advantage. This year they were working out the specific details related to trucks, such as where to put the sensors on 53-foot trailers, and how hard a truck can safely brake and accelerate.

The working conditions 

Starsky Robotics is a newly developed company that offers a different kind of solution. They are not redesigning the truck’s operations systems but rather creating a special kit that fits current trucks. This kit will give the autonomous functionalities of the truck. Unlike other technologies, Starky’s kit does not require the driver to be present in the truck.

The truck can drive autonomously while on a highway but a trained driver, who is remotely positioned in an operations center, takes over when the truck approaches an exit.  The driver will use a remote control to steer the truck to its final destination. As the founder of Starsky Robotics says, the company does not hire software developers but truck drivers.

This can be a big game-changer for trucking companies who want to attract new drivers. Currently drivers are on the road for weeks, sometimes for months, and for many of them this is a reason to leave the industry. Starsky’s kit is supposed to make it possible for drivers to work closely to home more often. This could be extremely valuable for women in the trucking industry, as it will allow them to have a family in addition to being on the road. The company has already tested their technology in a trip of self-driving truck to haul freight for 120 miles on a highway.

 The issues with autonomous trucks 

Autonomous vehicles are excellent at obeying the rules of the road. But what they don’t know quite yet is how to behave when surrounded by other vehicles. Especially those with drivers inside. Self-driving vehicles don’t realize that human drivers allow themselves to break the rules on the road. With this being said, autonomous trucks can’t predict human behavior. And this could be an even bigger problem for safety of the trucking industry and other drivers on the roads.

Another issue that is becoming more relevant is the weather. The seasonal conditions and the unexpected weather changes can be a huge enemy to cars today. Imagine when there is no driver behind the wheel who can actually evaluate the situation and make a judgment call on what to do. What if a truck has to go all the way from Washington State to Florida? It will pass through several types of weather. With no driver behind the wheel to recognize and adapt the driving, this could be threatening.

The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and all other companies working in the trucking industry are aware of these limitations. They are already looking for technological solutions to minimize the potential risks of self-driving vehicles. All are testing their autonomous trucks in closed-off settings before getting them out in the roads. Companies like Volvo are creating technological solutions of trucks in private settings and not for mass market in order to specialize in certain features before bringing them to the regular drivers in the highways.

There is a lot of precaution in the process of such technological innovations. Semi-autonomous technologies are another type of approach to making the transformation less risky. Daimler, for example, is using autonomous technologies but is not getting rid of the driver either. This makes the driver calmer and the truck safer. Just like in any other industry, the key is in finding the balance between human and technology.

 Why are trucking transformations important? 

Currently the trucking industry employs over 7.5 million people in the USA only. This is the main way companies in the US transport goods and materials across the country and beyond. The industry is growing, yet, despite that the challenges it faces are not minor. Drivers face tough working conditions because there is a lot of work and too much time pressure. This is why people’s willingness to enter the industry is decreasing.

Economically speaking, the “talent pool” for the job is huge. Almost anyone can become a certified truck driver in few months. The industry provides employment for people with poor education but also people with postdocs. You can find even celebrities who used to be truckers. The diversity is enormous. Yet, the conditions in each company vary just as much. The job is hard and this leads to high turnover of employees. The need for more drivers in the industry and more trucks on the roads is constantly growing.

Additionally, truck driving companies are confronted by environmental institutions who oppose this need. The harm vehicles cause to nature is becoming too much to allow additional vehicles of the same type on the highways.

All these issues limit the expansion of the trucking industry in the way it functions today. A change in the form of self-driving trucks can be beneficial to overcoming all these challenges at least to some extent.

Self-driving trucks will lead to:

  • Fuel efficiency due to a rather constant speed
  • Longer operational hours of trucks
  • More predictable behavior on the roads and fewer accidents
  • Better working conditions for drivers & time to rest
  • Lack of additional harm to the environment

How these transformations will affect auto transport?

Just like freight and cargo transport, the shipment of vehicles will also undergo changes as an effect of the hard work going on in the Silicon Valleys around the world.

Truck drivers would no longer have to be so engaged in the most exhausting parts of truck driving. With new technologies the role of the driver will shift more to the role of an inspector or supervisor. Instead of driving, the people behind the wheel will be serving as supervisors of their load at the origin and destination. The inspection report will be still their responsibility, after all. They will have to take care of inpecting the vehicle at the start of the journey and when it arrives to the recipient’s door.

They will also be the pilot on long stretches of open highway for example when a car is supposed to be shipped across the country. Even though this changes the operational duties of the trucker, it also gives them a little more prestige. Now, they will not be physically driving a big rig, they will be the ones dictating what the machine should do. This requires more know-how, a different level of expertise. Maybe the job positions will not even be with the title“driver” anymore?

In addition to that, however, the autonomy of trucks will put more responsibility on the truckers monitoring them. Even though they will not be behind the wheel, they should still be aware of what the vehicle is doing at any minute. And as we said before, machines may be stubborn. The more suspicious drivers will always be watching after their big child and what it is planning to do next. This may lead to additional stress, too.

As driverless trucks enter the auto transport industry, we should not forget to take care of our employees. Drivers, pilots, supervisors, software engineers – no matter the title of the position, people will remain the most valuable asset of a shipping company. They are the ones that provide the customer with their car or motorcycle, not the truck. This is why we should remain our focus on the human factor while we develop the technological elements in the system.

  With autonomy to the future

All these trends and transformations make many new companies want to enter the trucking industry. Companies like Tesla are now thinking of creating their own big rigs. A prototype is on the way. Elon Musk’s Master Plan for globalization is developing faster than expected. Amazon is now working on optimizing its delivery channels to achieve more efficient package deliveries. There are rumors that the company is planning on developing its own shipping network and bypassing its transportation partners.

We will see more industries blending together and trucking will be the core of the mixture. Let’s hope it’s a tough one. Big things are about to happen in the trucking industry. Changes are about to take place and it seems like it is all for the better. At least for now.

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About the Author:

Dilyana Dobrinova is a nature & travel enthusiast. With a heart for books, scarves and vintage. Dilyana feels most inspired with a cup of tea in her hand and mellow jazz in the background. She holds an M.A. in International Marketing Management from the Berlin School of Economics and Law in Germany, and two B.As. in Journalism & Mass Communication and Business Administration.

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