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Why Truckers Are Ready For Self-Driving Trucks

Uber subsidiary Otto just made the first self-driving truck delivery, but industry experts say truckers welcome it--as long as humans stay in the loop.

Samantha Cole

An Otto self-driving truck Image: Otto

The maiden voyage of the first self-driving commercial truck was a beer run. Budweiser, to be exact. Yes, this is basically the plot of Smokey and the Bandit, with an algorithm instead of Burt Reynolds.

Earlier this week, Uber's self-driving vehicle subsidiary Otto hauled a literal ton of beer, with a trained driver in the seat babysitting the autonomous technology. So far, the coverage of this 120-mile trip from Fort Collins, Colorado, to Colorado Springs has been breathless. It's a great big beautiful tomorrow! "We view self-driving trucks as the future, and we want to be a part of that," James Sembrot, senior director of logistics strategy at Anheuser-Busch told the New York Times.

The Otto demonstration wasn't even done in daylight, Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association, a nonprofit group, representing the state's truckers told Motherboard. That's a slick trick of marketing on Otto and Anheuser-Busch's part. The demo haul began around 12:30 a.m. on Oct. 20th, an Uber spokesperson confirmed, with Colorado State Patrol monitoring.

"Sometimes the messaging is like, 'gosh, are you going to have these people out there looking like ghost trucks...?'" Fulton said. "Well, I don't think so here folks."

"'Gosh, are you going to have these people out there looking like ghost trucks...?' Well, I don't think so here folks."

You might expect truck drivers to react the way taxi drivers did when Uber crashed their party: Pretty pissed. But big rig drivers can keep their seats for the foreseeable future. "We believe that there is always going to be a place for a professional driver in the trucking industry, for a number of reasons,"Sean McNally, spokesperson for the American Trucking Association, a national trucking trade group, told Motherboard. Hazmat materials, livestock, and snarly urban streets currently require a commercially licensed human hand on the wheel under US federal law.

Fulton said the prospect of self-driving trucks, illustrated by Otto's recent beer-delivery stunt, elicits a "mixed bag" of responses from the drivers themselves. Younger drivers tend to be more open to newer technologies. "A lot of the younger drivers, are looking at some of these new trucks with new technologies, and it is very appealing to them."

Older drivers — making up the bulk of the workforce, which averages around 49 year olds — tend to be more wary of new technology, but the tradeoff in safety and efficiency could be a big enough incentive to quell their hesitance. When many drivers are paid by the mile, fewer accidents and traffic jams means bigger paychecks.

The Bud self-driving run isn't a shock to the industry. It's already working on or using precursor technologies, such as forward looking radar, collision avoidance, and link departure warnings. The industry is familiar with these and and "have been for a long time," McNally said. Self-driving tech for trucking could someday be akin to a commercial airline pilot turning on autopilot.

And the commercial freight industry — truck, air, rail, pipeline and water— isn't exactly hurting for business. The 2016 edition of Forecast, an American Trucking Association and IHS Global Insight report, estimates that total tonnage from primary freight shipments in the United States will increase from around 14.89 billion tons in 2016 to 20.15 billion tons in 2027; up by over 35 percent in the next 11 years. Revenue from these shipments will increase by more than 77 percent in that same time frame, to a $1605.9 billion industry. Trucking's total volume transported is expected to increase "substantially more than any other mode."

"I think the big concern we have is that we don't get lost on the whole thing."

And the Department of Transportation has charted trucking's growth: In 2013 for-hire transportation contributed $481 billion (current dollars) to U.S. GDP. Of that total, the for-hire trucking mode contributed the largest share (27 percent), followed by air (17 percent).

If anything, trucks need more drivers. The trucking industry will need to hire a total 890,000 new drivers in the next 10 years — or an average of 89,000 per year — to keep up with the demand, according to an ATA 2015 driver shortage report. Under-qualified applicants and high turnover rates are some of the biggest factors holding them back.

One of the solutions? Autonomous drivers, the report states:

"Eventually, well beyond the dates of this report, one could envision an environment when the longer, line-haul portion of truck freight movements are completed by autonomous trucks and local pick-up and delivery routes are completed by drivers. However, motor carriers should not count on this being an option for some time."

Hiring veterans, paying drivers more, and fixing the supply chain are also offered as potential solutions. Ghost riders are the most far-out option of these. But the appeal of new technologies could draw young blood to the industry, something it needs a serious infusion of.

"We welcome it," Fulton said . "I think the big concern we have is that we don't get lost on the whole thing." That the safety autonomously-assisted driving brings to long hauls isn't lost in the fear of human obsolescence. Fulton said that after our conversation, he was headed to an Anheuser-Busch send-off party, complete with the famous Clydesdale. "We're gonna ask for the driverless horse to pull some beer along and see what they can do on that part, too."

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