Tesla CEO Elon Musk recently unveiled his latest innovation and simultaneously the electric vehicle manufacturer’s first foray into the commercial vehicle market. The Tesla Semi is an electric, semi-autonomous truck that Musk says will be able to travel 500 miles fully loaded on a single charge. Although Tesla isn’t the only company working on electric trucks, the company has certainly once again electrified the industry. Everyone’s talking about it.

But the conversation isn’t new. Earlier this year, the International Transport Forum (ITF) published a report that looks at how a transition to driverless road freight transport could happen. The study makes recommendations to help governments manage potential disruption and ensure a just transition for affected drivers. The main takeaway: Although automated road freight will save costs, reduce emissions, and make roads safer, the impact on driver jobs requires a managed transition. In short: we need to be thinking about an autonomous future now.

The future begins now

Semi-trucks controlled entirely by artificial intelligence (AI) may be a long way off, but companies managing large vehicle fleets cannot ignore advances in technology and the impact they might have. Logistics industry players certainly need to prepare for a future more reliant upon autonomous vehicles. Failure to plan for this eventual inevitability will be a costly mistake.

That’s because the future has already begun. Take, for example, the 120-mile driverless “beer run” conducted by Anheuser-Busch in 2016 between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs, Colorado. That venture down Interstate 25 was entered into the Guinness World Records for the longest continuous journey by a driverless and autonomous semi-truck. Despite the historic feat, Lior Ron, co-founder of Otto, the subsidiary of Uber developing the self-driving truck technology that powered the ride, said that for now AI technologies would merely act as truck driver “co-pilots.”

DHL is due to start testing several autonomous delivery vehicles in 2018, including our own electric delivery vehicle, the DHL StreetScooter. This has been made possible by our cooperation with AI computing company NVIDIA and ZF, one of the world’s largest automotive suppliers.

In addition, we have just placed an order for ten Tesla Electric Class 8 Semi Trucks, making us one of the first third-party logistics (3PL) companies to do so. Our DHL Supply Chain will purchase and test the trucks, which will be available in 2019, at its customer operations in major U.S. metro areas. The trucks will be used for shuttle deliveries and same-day customer deliveries, and will be tested for mileage efficiency on longer runs from major markets to other DHL operations across the country.

The benefits are many

The technology comes with many advantages both for companies and drivers. First, we agree with the ITF’s assessment and expect autonomous trucks to be much more energy efficient and thus both cost efficient and environmentally friendly. That’s extremely important to us given the fact that we have set ourselves the goal of reaching zero emissions by 2050.

Then there is the job itself. Drivers work long hours and need to be alert at all times, in particular on long hauls. As it is, there is already quite a labor shortage in markets such as the U.S. and the U.K. According to the commercial truck fleet news site truckinginfo.com, the industry was short around 50,000 drivers in the U.S. alone in 2016, with projections showing the need for an additional 100,000 drivers for 2017 on account of an aging workforce. The average age of a truck driver is reportedly 49, and many of them are retiring in part due to the fact that the job is a difficult one, especially for long-haul truckers who are away from home for long stretches of time. They often find more attractive work elsewhere.

That’s why drivers will benefit the most from innovations in AI. Autonomous technology will not only assist drivers, it will also bring additional safety. The autopilot will take over things like acceleration, braking, lane-centering and adaptive cruise control. And the instant response times built into these features will significantly increase road safety. Truckers will of course have to monitor all of this and remain alert – and that will be the case for a long time to come.

Consider airplane pilots. Though many people imagine pilots leaning back and reading the paper for most of the flight, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Indeed, most airlines use automation for much of their flights, but planes couldn’t fly without the skill and expertise of the crew. For example, the pilot must feed the computer with the routing information and then constantly monitor and manage the system throughout the entire flight. The technology merely assists the human crew, it does not replace them. 

The potential is great

Long before humans share the road with driverless semis, we’re going to see convoys of trucks “platooning” down our highways and interstates at an unprecedented level of safety and efficiency. Platooning involves a convoy of multiple trucks that use sensors, radar and vehicle-to-vehicle communications to basically operate as a single unit, with pre-defined routes and synchronized speeds. By following closely behind a lead truck, these “truck trains” take advantage of drafting, which reduces fuel consumption. The technology has the potential to enable a single driver to comfortably command an entire platoon of trucks.

DHL is currently putting platooning to the test in real-world logistics scenarios in the UK. This British government-funded research project, led by TRL, an independent transport consulting firm, will see a lead driver controlling acceleration and braking for all vehicles, while drivers present in all following vehicles retain steering control of their vehicles and are ready to take over all controls if required.

These UK trials will provide the stakeholders with important data to help better assess the long-term effects of platooning technology on road safety, the economy, the environment, and traffic congestion.

Lior Ron expects driverless trucks will be cruising on U.S. highways within a decade. Although his prediction may be proven right, given both the technological and regulatory challenges, at this stage we think a fully autonomous future is likely further away for both commercial and passenger vehicles.

While Tesla’s Semi reminds us that the automotive industry is making progress on the road to an autonomous future, both the industry and governments must heed the warnings of the ITF, look far into the future and consider ways to manage the transition to driverless trucks to avoid potential social disruption from job losses. And that includes the logistics industry. We need to begin considering an autonomous future with driverless trucks leading the way. Artificial intelligence may never supplant human intelligence in the cabs of our trucks, but it will help improve driver performance, and if leveraged properly, it has the potential to make their jobs easier and safer.

Bill Meahl is  DHL’s Chief Commercial Officer, responsible for coordinating the cross-DHL commercial activities of the DHL divisions Express, Global Forwarding/ Freight and Supply Chain across five key industry sectors; in addition to heading Innovation and Trend Research. He also manages DHL Global Forwarding Americas as the division’s Chief Executive Officer.

Published: December 2017

Images: Thinkstock/DHL