What Does Autonomous Trucking Mean For The Industry And American Cities At Large?

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Monday, June 3, 2019 - 11:47am
Updated: Tuesday, June 4, 2019 - 12:31pm

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LAUREN GILGER:  Waymo announced last week it will restart its self-driving truck program in Arizona. Our state has become one of the most common testing grounds for autonomous vehicles in the country as leaders have opened up our roads to the new technology. But if self-driving trucks become as pervasive as some industry experts think they will, what will happen to the current trucking industry, which employs nearly 2 million people in the U.S.? To shed some light on that, The Show spoke with Rachel Premack, a transportation reporter with Business Insider. How pervasive are self-driving trucks right now in the country?

RACHEL PREMACK: So there are quite a few companies that are testing self-driving trucks: you have Waymo, you have TuSimple, which also has one of these autonomous trucking tests going on, but not that many companies right now are actually making money off self-driving trucks. So TuSimple as an example of a company that does have a contract money-making operation where they have autonomous trucks on the road but those are only 10 to 30 trucks overall that are actually moving loads and generating enough revenue. Most of these trucks are just test.

GILGER: It seems though that in like the tech world, many of these tech leaders or innovators in this realm really think that this is inevitable like at a certain point, and it doesn't sound like from their point of view that it will be very far in the future, that self-driving trucks will sort of take over this industry. Is that what you hear?

PREMACK: So trucking analysts are kind of split on this. Some of them say it could happen within the next one to three years, but the vast majority say this is 10 or 20 even 30 years down the road. And the reason for this isn't just the technology but also the legal background to this. Right now, if a self-driving truck gets into an accident with a normal passenger car, the legal parts of this is not it's not clear. So is the manufacturer held, is the manufacturer going to be put on trial? Is it the software, is it the company that hired the self-driving truck? So there's a lot of legal barriers that are preventing self-driving trucks from becoming ubiquitous at all.

GILGER: When you talk about legal aspects, is there also a sense of regulation like what about driving across state lines?

PREMACK: Yeah, that's one of the big issues right now is that there are only certain states right now that permit even the testing to take place. So Arizona is one of the few states where you can actually test self-driving cars.

GILGER: Right. So as people are predicting the spread of this industry, like are they also anticipating that the regulatory landscape will vastly change?

PREMACK: They are, but that's we haven't seen it hasn't been moving as quickly as I think a lot of people might have anticipated or hoped for it to be moving.

GILGER: So then I also want to talk about the impact that this could have. Because you said it sounds like even the skeptics in this world think that this is inevitable at some point, it just may be further down the road than in the next couple of years. When and if this happens, then how big of an impact will this have on ... the trucking industry, which is as you mentioned a massive one?

PREMACK: Right. So there are about 1.8 eight million truck drivers in the U.S. So it's one of the most common job titles in actually many states across the country. And that really leaves millions of people possibly without a job. And the average truck driver right now is around 50 to 55. So that's as a stage where they don't really have the possibility of retraining for a different sort of job. On the other hand, a lot of people are saying that because there is this big issue with recruiting for new truck drivers, it's very possible that there simply won't be that many truck drivers by the time that the technology and the regulatory and the legal issues are sorted out. So because of all that, some people say that there won't be as large of a job displacement as the numbers would suggest. And the other, the other thing to note here is that even as the technology is developing, there also be a need for last-mile trucking in last-mile deliveries. So what experts are predicting right now is that there will be autonomous trucks that take loads from over long distances, but once they get to those warehouses or fulfillment centers, you so need a person to unload the truck at the fulfillment center and then take it from the fulfillment center to the stores or homes.

GILGER: So this will be a big deal for that industry, but maybe not in a negative way. Are there opportunities that companies that work with trucking companies and trucking companies themselves are looking forward to?

PREMACK: Right. So once we have these autonomous trucks, Morgan Stanley estimates that there will be savings in the labor side about $17 billion per year. And those would all be passed down to consumers and productivity would be up about 30% because these driverless trucks can run 24/7 in the way that obviously human operated trucks cannot. So it is quite possible according to these experts that once we have these self-driving trucks that there will be massive savings for consumer goods across the board.

GILGER: That is Rachel Premack, a transportation reporter for Business Insider talking to us about self-driving trucks. Rachel thank you so much for joining us.

PREMACK: Thanks for having me.

GILGER: So for our next guest the question of how we should be preparing for self-driving vehicles goes far beyond trucking. Yonah Freemark is a Ph.D. candidate at MIT and one of the authors of a new paper called "Are Cities Prepared For Autonomous Vehicles?" He says with the rise of self-driving cars and trucks cities have a chance to rethink our roadways. Do they have to be full of traffic? Do they have to be unworkable? But most cities he founds aren't there yet.

YONAH FREEMARK: You know, we have spent the last 70 years or so designing most of the cities in the United States around the automobile and that's meant basically streets that are very wide. Traffic that is congested all the time, environments where it's difficult to walk around, and high rates of people actually dying on the roads. And with autonomous vehicles, Cities have an opportunity to think differently about what the streets look like. Making them may be more useful for pedestrians, making them places where people can play in the streets again. And I think that cities really have an opportunity to think more broadly about what they want transportation to be like in the next 30 years. And so I hope that they're thinking seriously about how they can orient their planning in that direction.

GILGER: Right. So you surveyed almost 150 cities, is that right about this?

FREEMARK: That's right.

GILGER: Tell us what you found. I mean how many of these cities are actually thinking about these things or are prepared in any way for this?

FREEMARK: So one thing we found that was very striking to us is that despite the fact that most of the people we interviewed, about three-quarters believe that AVs, or driverless cars, are coming really soon in the next 10 years. The vast majority believe also that their cities are not prepared for AVs. So less than 5% felt that their city had a clear plan for these new vehicles. And so to me that was quite a striking finding because it suggested that there's this new technology. Everyone knows that it's coming and in some cities, it's actually already in operation in some ways. And yet cities don't really have a clear sense of how they're going to respond to that. And I think that's a concerning issue if we think that planning should play a role in thinking about the future.

GILGER: So I mean here in the Valley, and some of the sufferings at Phoenix, here there are autonomous vehicles operating. I went on a ride along, and one of them it's it's odd. So really this is sort of rolling out already, and the state Legislature and our governor here have been very open to this kind of technology coming in. So is this about regulations. I wonder if there's a question about about laws that should surround this?

FREEMARK: That's a great question. One thing that we found was that more than half of the people responded saying that they prioritized technological innovation in responding to AVs. And so I think it makes sense that we're already starting to see cities and states say we want to have these cars operating on our roads to test out what this is going to be like in the future. And I think that's a great thing. But if you believe that one of the things we can do with AV is change the way our streets work, then we are absolutely need new regulations about how they use the curb space, how they interact with traffic lights, whether people, for example, are allowed to walk across streets at certain points that now are considered jaywalking. And so that will require changes in both municipal and state legislation all across our country.

GILGER: And this is because autonomous vehicles, you don't need need to avoid them the way you might need to avoid a driver, right? Like they should be able to detect a pedestrian the road and stop for them regardless of where they cross.

FREEMARK: Well in theory that's that's what we hope. One thing we found was that about 60% of the people we interviewed agreed you know that safety would increase with driverless cars, and the general idea with this is that a driverless car doesn't get distracted by text messaging or phone calls or the radio. It can continue to operate, you know, safely in theory at least and not run into people. And so what that really means is we can rethink how people interact with the street right now. We tell our kids don't go into the street you might get run over, and in fact many people do get run over. But with AVs when you have a car that is on alert at all times and that has the ability to respond to changes in the environment, we can maybe start having kids playing ball again in the street, reusing the street as a sort of public space. This obviously wouldn't be true for our highways, but it might be true for our neighborhood streets. And that I think could be a great opportunity for many of our cities.

GILGER: And that's especially a paradigm shift here in Phoenix. Arizona, it just was founded this year to have the highest rate of pedestrian deaths in the country. We've talked a lot about that and in our city councils here in the Valley, etc. That could be a huge opportunity, but it also might be scary for people. Like is there a sense from the people that you talk to of how much you'd have to change your perspective to do this? Like will it take a generation to feel comfortable walking out in the street and trusting that a car is not going to hit them.

FREEMARK: You know I think what's going to take the most amount of time is that there's going to be this transition period between now and maybe 30 years from now in which we have both driverless cars and regular cars operating at the same time on the street. And that means that a lot of cities will not be able to take the positive steps forward in changing the street, because there will still be regular people driving around their older cars on those same streets. You know, today obviously almost every car that purchased is a regular car with a human driver making decisions and that those cars are not going to disappear anytime soon. So one question for cities is whether they want to say certain areas of our neighborhoods, for example, or downtowns will be reserved to just these types of vehicles and that can open up opportunities. And those can be test beds for the sorts of behavioral and psychological changes that you're talking about it can help people get more used to the idea of the street as a public space rather than just a place for movement.

GILGER: So I always ask this question of people who live in this world of autonomous vehicles because I think it's fascinating. But like what do you envision this looking like at some point? Like is there an endgame here where where there are only autonomous vehicles on the road to you.

FREEMARK: That's a great question. Obviously there are a lot of people out there who still enjoy driving. Uou know a lot of people don't like being in traffic, but a lot of people really do like driving out onto a country road and you know accelerating decelerating etc.

GILGER: Yeah yeah.

FREEMARK: It will take many years until you know a city or Legislature will be willing to say we just don't want you to do that anymore. So I don't expect that to be coming anytime soon, that that sort of legislative requirement. But what I do expect is this idea that we have certain neighborhoods where we change the rules and then might come by neighborhoods associations agreeing that they want to see this change. It might come by a downtown group, for example, saying you know we don't need everybody to have access to this exact block. We can allow just autonomous vehicles on this block and that would be OK. And I envision that coming actually pretty soon because some cities are already talking about creating sort of tech and innovation districts around these. And I think that could be a great first step.

GILGER: Right. Yonah Freemark is a Ph.D. candidate at M.I.T. and one of the authors of this paper. Yonah, thank you so much for joining us.

FREEMARK: Thank you. 

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