The Central North American Trade Corridor Association has proposed a robot truck corridor crossing Canada, the U.S. and Mexico and has launched an initiative to implement this on Route 83. The group is planning to travel to communities along the corridor to gain support.
Robotics has been part of the economy for more than five decades now. But largely it has been in the domain of factories and more recently in warehouses. Trucking could be the first major industry to move robotics into the public sphere. Soon, all Americans will be faced with robots driving next to them on highways.
The potential of robot-driven trucks is starting to create a movement among businesses and states to be the first to what will turn into a gold rush.
"Whoever has the regulatory framework in place" will be the first to get autonomous vehicles, Wolfgang Bernhard, head of Daimler's (DDAIY) global truck and bus unit, said recently. Fittingly Nevada, one of the states on the proposed route, has already licensed robot trucks to drive on its highways. In May 2015, Daimler unveiled the first robot truck licensed to drive in Nevada. At a grand event at the Hoover dam, Daimler introduced its Freightliner "Inspiration" self-driving trucks.
"We believe that this will help save lives and prevent costly accidents," Martin Daum, president of Portland, Oreg.-based Daimler Trucks North America, parent of Freightliner, said recently.
Trucking is proving to be particularly suited for robotic transportation. Trucking is currently very inefficient due to human limitations. Even though a truck has the capacity to be operational nearly 24 hours a day, due to sleep requirements and work laws, they tend to be used for about one-third the time. With automated trucking, throughput could be doubled or even tripled and return on these expensive fixed assets can be dramatically increased.
Trucking is almost entirely commercial in nature and hence under the control of businesses. Decisions can be made without as much public awareness as when Google (GOOG) and others start selling self-driving cars to consumers in the future.
Trucking is fairly predictable due to the point-to-point delivery nature of shipping with large and convenient docking facilities in train yards, ship yards, and distribution centers. Even retail facilities in shopping malls tend to have good loading and unloading capabilities. They are easier to automate than for example, taxi fleets, which currently Uber is trying to do. Due to GPS, comprehensive traffic and weather reports, they can be easily re-routed to be even more efficient than a human organized system can be.
There are more than 5.7 million people licensed as professional drivers today, from those who drive delivery vans to those who drive tractor-trailer trucks. Driver costs, including pay, bonuses, healthcare, retirement, insurance, etc., can be almost completely eliminated. Additional driver-related risks, such as driver availability, sleep-related or alcohol- and drug-related accidents, scheduling issues, strikes, can also be largely eliminated.
Robot trucks can also be more versatile: Today transportation of hazardous material is difficult and costly, in part due to use of human drivers. Drivers may need to be paid additional to handle these additional risks. These would be some of the first to be replaced. Overall costs would be dramatically lower, efficiency would be significantly higher and return of investments will be dramatically higher.
The economic value of the robot trucks is going to be dramatic. Increasing of drive time, all-weather execution, truck convoys, centralized monitoring and routing, reduction of driver employment and related costs, could easily expand the impact of trucking's impact on the nation's economy.
Every consumer has to deal with shipping times and shipping costs, either for goods they order directly or for goods they buy from stores, which are shipped, too. Trucking today functions as a brake on the nation's economy. Robot trucks will make more efficient deliveries and resultant lower costs available to all businesses. Cheaper shipping will allow more consumption and boost the economy.