Thousands of autonomous trucks, driving night and day, pin to pin, with no hours-of-service regulations, only limited by a maintenance schedule, could soon replace many drivers on the road. Can you imagine the shear capacity this could offer to shippers across the world?
Yes, the prospect of autonomous trucks is incredibly exciting, but it raises a lot of questions:
- Who is liable in an accident?
- How will it handle icy roads or snowstorms?
- How hard will it be to cross the border?
- Will they be able to handle an oversized load?
- Will there be a need for pilot cars?
- What about construction zones or if the truck needs to venture off highway?
- Who is securing the load?
Really, what most people in our industry are wondering is what is the role of a driver in the world of autonomous trucks?
Whether we like it or not, fully autonomous vehicles are coming.
It’s already began, as computers are already capable of navigating and travelling the millions of miles in the sunbelt states without a driver at the wheel. The software that runs these vehicles are constantly learning, refining their algorithms by the minute. This is compounded by the fact that all vehicles with the same software learn from each other’s experiences. It’s not going to take long before people realize that in most driving situations, artificial intelligence will outperform a human. Additionally, computers never need sleep, food, or even breaks. They won’t have hours-of-service rules restricting travel times. The productivity benefits will be massive and hugely disruptive to our industry.
So, what does that mean for us in the cross border, open deck, flatbed, oversized, heavy haul, specialized trucking space?
It is widely expected there will be many fully autonomous commercial trucks traveling interstate highways without a driver by the end of this decade. Millions of test miles are already being traveled with backup drivers that never touch the wheel. It’s happening.
We are not naïve enough to say that autonomous technology will never be able to do what we do, but we’re confident our niche will be one of the last to be automated.
Open-deck transportation is quite different than the dry van and reefer world.
For starters, most freight is transported directly from shipper to receiver. Van, reefer, and LTL freight is often moved around between terminals, which makes it significantly easier to automate. To do the same with open deck freight, though, is far less simple.
You eliminate the ability to travel 24 hours a day if you are overweight, overwidth, and especially for heavy haul multi-axle shipments, since many states require you travel during daylight-only for the safety of passenger vehicles around you. I don’t imagine this requirement will change with autonomous vehicles. These permit restrictions require interpretation and are unique to each state or province, involving travel restrictions, flag-and-beacon-light requirements, interacting with pilot cars, bridge heights, and changing dimensions of construction zones.
Is this starting to sound familiar? In open-deck trucking, drivers don’t just drive! They must make human decisions, interacting with many other humans throughout their trip in order to move their freight safely from shipper to receiver.
Wildwood Transport is in Canada, where there’s snow, ice, road closures, and a highway system that is not as advanced as the USA. Our truck drivers can attest to the fact that there were many days this winter where we lost sight of the lines on the road. When the wind is hurling snow all over the road, it’s often a human decision that keeps the truck squarely between the invisible lines.
Our freight often crosses an international border, which means paperwork, C-TPAT security requirements, and troubleshooting that a quality driver navigates through each time they cross.
But the future is inevitable.
Are all these impossible challenges for technology to solve? It’s doubtful.
Over time, there will be a whole new set of infrastructure to support the autonomous world. But our view is that we will be one of the last to be automated. The rest of the industry may start displacing driver jobs at some point, but top-quality drivers will have a home in the open deck world for many, many years. For someone new getting into a driving career today, our view is that you will be able to retire as a long-haul open deck driver.
Open deck drivers load their own loads, deliver their own loads, and do a lot of hard human work along the way. They don’t just drive. The importance of a quality driver is magnified in the open-deck space, particularly in the specialized heavy-haul trucking segment. So, Wildwood is proud to say that despite impressive advances in autonomous technology, for now and for a long time into the future, top-quality drivers and owner operators that we employ are irreplaceable. Here, they will enjoy a long career perfecting their craft.