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Leave the Driving to Us Robots

Stocks in this article: GOOG TM UPS FDX RRTS

It's hard to argue that drivers shouldn't be forced to drive tired, but the rules that make drivers and other motorists safe also make it more cost-effective to replace humans with computer systems.

The distance between Los Angeles and Chicago is about 2,000 miles. If a trucker averages 65 miles an hour during the trip, it takes about 31 hours on the road, plus 20 hours of mandatory breaks. If a computer drives the load, it might take a total of 35 hours on average, after stopping for fuel along the way.

A truck leaving LA early enough could deliver the goods to Chicago by the end of business the next day. That's much faster than the three-day average travel time with a person driving.

Driverless trucks can carry more weight per shipment, too. A truck with a sleeper cab can easily weigh 22,000 pounds or more, compared to 13,000 pounds without a bunk. Because weight, not size, often limits loads, a driverless truck on average can haul more product.

Return on investment and size of investment must be considered, too. A sleeper cab can easily cost more than $200,000 new, while a truck without one may cost under $150,000. Once a driverless system falls under $50,000 extra per truck, the driverless version may not even cost more than one built for a human pilot.

If you can have a driverless truck on the clock an extra 12 hours a day, essentially cutting the fleet cost in half, the total investment may be lower than for a driver-truck fleet, even with a higher cost per truck. Also, for air-and-land carriers like UPS and FedEx, some packages can travel by land that now have to fly to arrive on time.

Weidenhoeft isn't worried that he'll have to look for another job soon. He points out that weather conditions often make driving as much art as it is science. It's easy for a computer to handle perfect conditions, but in the real world, trucks are not always able to drive in perfect conditions. Snow, ice and mountain passes don't play well together. If you don't have a driver, it may be difficult to pull over and attach chains to the tires.

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