Monday, June 1, 2015

Self-driving trucks don't need to solve the last mile problem to change the world

The self-driving vehicle revolution will truly start with trucks and not cars. The main reason is that self-driving semi-trailer trucks don't need to solve the last mile problem to cause a dramatic industry change.

The big problem with all current self-driving vehicles is complicated city driving. While highways are well-mapped, well-paved, predictable, and among the first roads to be plowed, urban environments are much more chaotic. Jaywalkers, four-way stops, bicycles, etc. are what self-driving vehicles have the most trouble with.

A car that can drive itself on the highway but can't actually get people to their home, hotel, or restaurant without help would be only an incremental improvement, not a game changer. It makes individual driving easier but doesn't allow for something like a fully automated taxi service. On the other hand, a truck that can only drive itself on the highways would be a real game changer. While the technology is not quite there yet, it likely will be soon.

Many factories, warehouses, and distribution centers have already been built right next to the highways. Self driving trucks will probably soon be able to handle these type of routes on their own. In addition, for self-driving trucks that need to finish their long route inside an urban environment, companies could redesign their logistics so human drivers are only used for this final stretch. Picture large parking lots right next to the highways outside the cities. The trucks drive themselves to these lots and a team of local truck drivers waits there to drive them the last few miles.

Trucks also cost substantially more than cars and are driven significantly more miles. This means the benefit-to-cost ratio of adding a self-driving system to a truck is much higher. Paying an extra $10,000 so your personal car can drive itself on the highway is a big expense for what is mostly a convenience. On the other hand, a trucking company that pays an extra $10,000 for a similar system will quickly make that investment back with improved fuel economy and reduced personnel costs.

There are roughly 1.7 million heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers in this country. Self-driving trucks that could only handle highways would still be able to eliminate or dramatically change a huge portion of these jobs. Unlike cars, self-driving trucks don't need to be perfect before they will cause a real paradigm shift.

*I, PRA [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

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