For these reasons, solving the technical hurdles for autonomous trucks could be easier than for passenger cars or taxis—with human-driven trucks handling the first and last miles of the journey on surface streets.
Autonomous trucks also hold the potential to solve one of the biggest problems plaguing the trucking industry today—a massive labor shortage. In 2021, the American Trucking Associations estimated that the industry faced a historic shortfall of 80,000 drivers, with expectations that the shortage could exceed 160,000 drivers by 2030 given current driver demographics and expected growth in freight volumes. The Financial Times reports that the situation is much the same in Europe, where in 2021 the EU faced a shortage of 400,000 heavy-goods vehicle drivers.
According to a US Department of Transportation study, while autonomous vehicles could eventually lead to job losses in the trucking industry, human drivers will still be needed for the foreseeable future to operate trucks on the first and last miles of routes. Long-haul trucking jobs in particular are challenging to fill since many drivers are reluctant to be away from home on jobs that often involve being on the road for three to six weeks at a time. Drivers handling first-mile and last-mile routes in autonomous trucks could work close to home, which could make it easier for trucking companies to hire and retain the staff they need.
The financial case for autonomous trucking is also compelling. Autonomous driving technologies could reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) of long-haul trucking by more than 30% through labor savings and driving efficiency gains. Because trucks would no longer have to sit idle while their drivers rest due to shift limits, vehicle utilization could more than double, dramatically increasing productivity. (See Exhibit 1.)
Recognizing the strong business case for self-driving trucks, a number of autonomous driving companies—including Aurora, Einride, Embark, Kodiak, Plus, Torc, TuSimple, and Waymo—have been building the technology to bring solutions to market while forging partnerships with (or in the case of Torc, being acquired by) OEM trucking companies and fleet operators.
AV companies are starting pilot programs to put autonomous trucks on highways. So far, these self-driving vehicles mostly have a “safety driver” behind the wheel, ready to take control at a moment’s notice if the AI needs help. As they look to expand their roadway networks beyond the pilot phase, companies need to identify which trucking hubs are best suited to AV fleets and determine which point-to-point routes and multi-hop corridors should be prioritized.
Filtering and Prioritizing Autonomous Trucking Routes
Kodiak, headquartered in Mountain View, California, set up its commercial operations hub in Texas—where the warm weather, dense freight volume, friendly legislative environment, and lengthy limited-access highway shipping corridors are all conducive to autonomous trucking operations.1
Reuters describes the regulatory environment for autonomous vehicles in Texas as being “highly permissive” for both testing and deployment with “minimal rules and oversight.” (“How free-wheeling Texas became the self-driving trucking industry’s promised land” (June 17, 2022)).
Kodiak operates its vehicles in 10 states, both on test runs and carrying customer cargo between its Dallas headquarters and four other cities: Houston, Austin, Oklahoma City, and Atlanta. Recently, Kodiak completed a coast-to-coast pilot run between San Francisco and Jacksonville, Florida.2
Kodiak, “Kodiak Robotics Names 10 Roads Express as a Partner; Expands Autonomous Freight Service to Florida” (July 26, 2022).
The company believes that its proprietary “sparse” mapping technique, which omits extraneous information to focus on essential geometric, topological, and semantic highway attributes, can help the company scale up quickly and is a strong competitive differentiator.