Autonomous truck technology would enable distributors to solve one of the main supply chain problems: an ongoing driver shortage.

The trucking industry was shorthanded before the pandemic. In the past 18 months, the dearth of drivers has only worsened. Autonomous trucking could serve as a means to remove one of the weakest links in supply chains, according to a recent MDM webcast.

Self-driving trucks create operational and economic benefits for distributors, such as longer drive times when compared to human drivers. There’s a projected 30% or more per-mile cost reduction when using autonomous trucks compared to human truck drivers, according to Deloitte.

Rodney Winger, director of industry marketing for wholesale distribution at Sage, said during MDM’s “Supply Chain Optimization in Volatile Markets” webcast, it wasn’t a matter of if autonomous trucking plays a key role for distributors, but when. The labor shortage in the trucking industry has been a sore spot of distributors for “about five or six years,” according to Winger.

Winger and fellow Sage panelist Mike Edgett, U.S. product marketing director, said distributors should focus on removing the weakest links in their supply chains. In addition to using autonomous trucks, they also recommended sourcing materials closer to home rather than relying on overseas containers.

Winger said traditional trucking is here to stay, but still advised distributors to keep an eye on the autonomous vehicles (AV) space. Over the past two years, investments in AV have shifted from cars, such as Tesla, to the trucking side, according to Winger. Distributors aren’t going to resolve the lack of truck drivers quickly, he added.

“We continue to increase our reliance on the trucking industry,” Winger said. “How else, quite honestly, do you get to what we call that last mile? Even if you did this in rail or some other medium, you’ve still got to get it distributed. So, I think the trucking industry is here for a long time. We’ve built the roads and streets, and that’s how we move product most effectively.

“Will it be electric? Absolutely. We’ve got to get away from fossil fuels. And will it be autonomous? Absolutely. Because we just don’t have the labor capability capacity to support what we’re doing today.”

What will it take to enable autonomous trucking?                                          

There are technology, regulatory and operational support issues that need to be resolved before autonomous trucks rumble across the nation’s interstates, not to mention that there needs to be more products and materials in the supply chains themselves.

AV companies, such as TuSimple and Einride, among others, have conducted trials for autonomous trucking. There have also been trials in the U.S. and Europe using Level 4 driving automation, which includes vehicles, such as buses, operating along prescribed routes on a fixed schedule without the need for any human interactions.

Additionally, the increased rollout of 5G will help on the connectivity front. But at present telecoms, such as AT&T and Verizon, are focusing their 5G efforts on large urban areas. Consistent data speeds of 10 Mbps to 20 Mbps — using 4G LTE — would be sufficient for self-driving trucks, according to Roy Chua, the founder and principal at independent research and advisory service AvidThink. The consistent speeds would enable full-time monitoring, which could include human monitoring via cameras.

Due to favorable regulations, weather, and road conditions, Deloitte said autonomous trucking would likely be first commercialized in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico, followed by Oklahoma.

As for the timing of wide-scale autonomous trucking for distributors, Winger’s optimistic forecast is 24 months.

“I’m not as optimistic that we’re going to see this in 24 months,” said Edgett. “But I do think you’re going to continue to see that be an area that is going to be really the solution to this problem. I don’t see anywhere else that make sense.”


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