Self-Driving Trucks Are Changing the Shipping Industry in 2023

May 31, 2023

Overhead view of many parked semi trucks

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Driverless vehicles are coming and it’s only a matter of time before they’re standard on our roadways. When people think of driverless cars, individual cars from Google’s fleet and other companies like Tesla, BMW, and Audi come to mind. What’s next? You don’t have to look far for self-driving trucks.

Consumer vehicles aren’t the only ones exploring the autonomous driving experience. Some semi-trucks will soon have self-driving technology as numerous manufacturers are currently testing the machinery. Industry experts say self-driving trucks have multiple benefits for shipping and logistics companies. Let’s dive into the potential of self-driving trucks and how they could change the shipping world.

What Are the Benefits of Self-Driving Trucks?

Why are we heading toward self-driving semi-trucks? The innovation has incredible potential. These five benefits are just a few advantages you may see with autonomous trucks. 

1. Improving Safety

The primary feature of autonomous trucks is improved safety. We know what you’re thinking — how can a self-driving truck be safer than a human behind the wheel? There are a few reasons. 

First, think about human error in driving. Truckers can get distracted by numerous things on the road, including cell phones, pedestrians, billboards, wrecks and other things. Humans cause most car accidents in the U.S., so removing a significant part of the human element from driving can make shipping safer. 

Also, consider the emotional element. Outside factors influence your driving, whether you’re excited, sad or angry. Studies show anxious and risky truckers have more accidents. Artificial intelligence (AI) is emotionless, so you won’t have to worry about emotional or distracted drivers. 

2. Alleviating Traffic Congestion

When you’re driving to work, school or another errand, you likely have a timeline for when you need to arrive — or maybe you’re relaxing on a road trip with no deadlines. Whatever your schedule, the last thing you want is to get stuck behind a bunch of trucks. Luckily, self-driving trucks alleviate traffic congestion and clear up the road. 

How do the trucks achieve this? First, they use efficient routing. Autonomous vehicles can use traffic data to optimize their routes on the go. They’ll find the most efficient way to get to their destination, whether the interstate, a state highway or another back road. Traffic will have more even distribution, making it easier for everybody on the road.

3. Reducing Fuel Consumption

The transportation sector accounts for 29% of America’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That number needs to change, unless we want the dog days of summer year-round — with dangerous consequences. Fortunately, the trucking industry can reduce fuel consumption by converting to autonomous vehicles. 

Efficient route planning and lower traffic congestion are part of this solution. These trucks are also intelligent enough to use predictive analytics and smart driving behavior. For example, self-driving trucks can learn how to accelerate and decelerate for optimal fuel efficiency. Zero to 60 in 3.5 is not the name of the game here. 

View of a semi truck driving on a mountainous highway

4. Mitigating Shortages

The trucking industry is at a crossroads. While the sector is one of the most popular job providers in the U.S. and worldwide, it still faces labor shortages. In late 2021, the American Trucking Association reported a historical deficit of 80,000 drivers — a devastating number considering the supply chain problems. 

How do we fix the issue? One solution comes from self-driving semi-trucks. Employing these autonomous vehicles helps the shipping industry by putting more trucks on the road without worrying about drivers. We won’t be as dependent on humans, reducing bottlenecks and easing supply chain disruptions. 

5. Increasing Productivity

Reducing dependence on humans means we can operate trucks longer and increase productivity. Truckers can drive nearly 12 hours daily but must stop and rest. In fact, laws say they have to have time off between trips. 

Imagine a world where trucks can run all day with no interruptions except stopping for fuel. Allowing autonomous trucks to run into the night would reduce lead times and lead to less congestion on the road. Self-driving semi-trucks enable drivers to focus on paperwork or other priorities while AI takes care of the driving. 

What Are the Drawbacks of Self-Driving Trucks?

Autonomous trucks have enormous potential for the shipping industry. However, they’re not without disadvantages. These five drawbacks demonstrate why we’re not ready for the transition and may never be. 

1. Replacing Current Truckers

The U.S. has a ton of truck drivers. Specifically, there are about 3.5 million truckers, and 91% of them work full-time. Imagine replacing all of them with autonomous trucks. Putting three million people out of work would be devastating. For many employees, trucking is all they know. There will be a mad scramble for jobs once self-driving big rigs take over. 

What can truckers do if they lose their jobs? Many of them will have to retrain for other jobs. They could stay in the transportation industry or completely revamp their career. Imagine a trucker trying to work from home and going against everything they’ve known about the workplace. 

2. Intimidating High Costs

Why are some companies hesitant to purchase autonomous trucks? While we’re not at level 5 autonomy yet with semi-trucks, the prices are already sky-high. 

For example, look at the Tesla Semi. This machine debuted after years of anticipation and has a steep asking price. Tesla charges about $250,000 per truck — a steep cost for many fleets. Companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi can afford them, but what about the small to mid-size businesses? Investing in a Tesla Semi could strain their already tight budgets.

They may become affordable later, but they’re at a premium for now. 

A view of two competing soda company trucks parked next to each other

3. Legal Questions

The rise of self-driving vehicles has raised legal questions. Society must address these problems before considering letting autonomous trucks hit the road without hesitation. For example, say a self-driving truck crashes into a sedan. Who is liable? Would it be the truck’s owner? Can the sedan owner sue the software developer? We don’t know the answers yet. 

However, we have seen a glimpse of legal answers. For example, a California jury said Tesla was not liable in a case where the plaintiff sued the company for a crash they blamed on the Autopilot feature.

4. Public Hesitation

You can present concrete evidence to support your claims, but it doesn’t matter if people aren’t on your side. When it comes to autonomous vehicles, the court of public opinion matters as much as the Supreme Court. Currently, Americans are fearful of self-driving cars. 

A 2023 survey from the American Automobile Association (AAA) finds 68% of drivers are afraid of self-driving vehicles. While some might expect time to ease those fears, that number is higher than the 55% who said they were afraid in 2022. People are hesitant to see and operate self-driving cars because they want control over their driving. It will take a long time to ingrain autonomous trucks as part of our society. 

5. Cybersecurity Liabilities

Cybersecurity is one of the top concerns for shipping and logistics companies. How does cybersecurity impact trucks? Don’t they only affect computers? Technology has evolved to bring trucks into the digital age. Modern big rigs have incredible capabilities because of the computer systems within the vehicle. 

Unfortunately, these advances open the door for hackers. Self-driving trucks rely on software and advanced AI to operate. Hackers can infiltrate these systems and infect them with malware and other terrible viruses. Imagine you’re behind a hacked truck that starts swerving and causes a wreck. That possibility exists with autonomous trucks. 

Research shows 95% of hackers target government, retail and technology organizations, so this vulnerability will significantly affect the trucking industry.

The Future of Trucking Is Here

Self-driving cars were figments of our imaginations a decade or two ago. Now they’re coming closer to reality. Autonomous trucks will forever change industries like trucking. There will be positive and negative impacts, so only time will tell which side we see more.

Updated 5/31/2023

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Jack Shaw is a senior writer at Modded. Jack is an avid enthusiast for keeping up with personal health and enjoying nature. He has over five years of experience writing in the men's lifestyle niche, and has written extensively on topics of fitness, exploring the outdoors and men's interests. His writings have been featured in SportsEd TV, Love Inc., and Offroad Xtreme among many more publications.