Autonomous trucking will make commercial driving a safer, more enjoyable job
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Autonomous vehicles have great potential for improving existing, high-demand transportation services, moving everything from passengers to packages. While most attention is focused on cars and drones, the autonomous industry sees the greatest near-term potential in another mode: trucking.

More than 70 percent of freight tonnage moved in America goes via truck. In 2016, that equated to 10.5 billion tons. The figure is expected to grow steadily in the coming years, the latest American Trucking Association (ATA) forecast projects.

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The growth presents opportunities for trucking companies — but also challenges. A 2015 ATA study found there is a shortage of at least 48,000 drivers nationwide, and it’s growing. Keeping enough certified commercial drivers in the pipeline will only become more daunting as demand for long-haul, over-the-road freight increases.

 

Improving truck safety — already a high priority — becomes even more critical as more trucks take to the roads. Commercial trucks represent just 1 percent of the vehicles on the road, but accidents involving them account for 10 percent of all road fatalities. Driver fatigue is often a contributing factor.

Increasing automation in long-haul trucking holds the promise of addressing the driver shortage and improving safety. 

“The autonomous vehicle systems can help reduce driving stress, cut the amount of monotonous time periods on long trips, and have a positive effect on driver health,” according to Freightliner, whose parent company, Daimler Trucks, is developing autonomous trucks. “By improving the quality of life of truck drivers, autonomous vehicle technology may also help reduce the driver shortage by improving driver turnover and attracting new people who previously may not have considered a career as a truck driver.”

More rested drivers are both safer and happier drivers — and happier drivers are more likely to keep driving for a living. This reduces turnover. Myriad other benefits will come, including dramatic reduction in emissions through increases in fuel efficiency.

Industry, from trucking manufacturers to technology developers, are leading the way, but they need support from Congress and regulators. Together, these stakeholders must start accelerating the investment, development and testing of these capabilities today. Delay will be measured not just on balance sheets, but in loss of life. 

Paul Brubaker is president and CEO of the Alliance for Transportation Innovation (ATI21). Previously, he served as the Department of Transportation administrator of its Research and Innovative Technology administration as well as deputy assistant secretary and deputy chief Information Officer for the Department of Defense.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.