Without trucks, America stops: Will technology kill the transport industry?

Self-driving cars are hardly a new phenomenon, with the technology first being developed in the early 1990s. However, with recent groundbreaking developments in the space, and trials of self-driving trucks receiving widespread attention, it’s caused many in the transport industry to question if it spells the end of conventional freight.

As recorded in June 1995 in Popular Science Magazine, self-driving trucks were being developed for combat convoys, whereby only the lead truck would be driven by a human and the following trucks would rely on satellite, an inertial guidance system and ground-speed sensors. Caterpillar Inc. made early developments in 2013 with the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University to improve efficiency and reduce cost at various mining and construction sites.

Companies such as Suncor Energy, a Canadian energy company, and Rio Tinto Group were among the first to replace human-operated trucks with driverless commercial trucks run by computers. In April 2016, trucks from major manufacturers including Volvo and the Daimler Company completed a week of autonomous driving across Europe, organized by the Dutch, in an effort to get self-driving trucks on the road.

With developments in self-driving trucks progressing, U.S. self-driving truck sales is forecast to reach 60,000 by 2035 according to a report released by IHS Inc. in June 2016.

In August 2017, Tesla, Inc., owned by Elon Musk, revealed it intends to proceed with developing a long-haul, electric semi-truck that can drive itself and move in “platoons” that automatically follow a lead vehicle. It also disclosed it sought permission to test such vehicles in Nevada.

Among the main obstacles to widespread adoption are technological challenges, disputes concerning liability; the time period needed to replace the existing stock of vehicles; resistance by individuals to forfeit control; consumer safety concerns; implementation of a workable legal framework and establishment of government regulations; risk of loss of privacy and security concerns, such as hackers or terrorism; concerns about the resulting loss of driving-related jobs in the road transport industry; and risk of increased suburbanization as travel becomes less costly and time-consuming. Many of these issues are due to the fact that autonomous objects, for the first time, allow computers to roam freely, with many related safety and security concerns.