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Supply Chain News: MIT Report Says not to Expect Self-Driving Trucks any Time Soon


Sees Most Promise in Short Term on Human-Autonomous Platooning

July 28, 2020
SCDigest Editorial Staff
In one of a number of reports in MIT's Work of the Future research series, a trio of MIT academics look at the future of autonomous vehicles generally, including for long haul freight movement, with special focus on the impact on jobs.

The overall conclusion: while when truly ready autonomous cars, buses, and delivery and heavy duty trucks will have a profound impact on society and jobs, that future is likely decades off, and the near term step in freight movement is likely semi-automated platooning for long haul moves.

Supply Chain Digest Says...


The authors believe the near term future in freight movement may be human-autonomous truck platooning, in which multiple Level 4 trucks follow a human-driven lead truck.

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"Visions of automation in mobility will not be fully realized in the next few years, as recent developments indicate that a major transition will not occur suddenly," John Leonard, David Mindell, and Erik Stayton write, adding that "Rather, analysis of the best available data suggests that the reshaping of mobility around automation will take more than a decade. We expect that fully automated driving will be restricted to limited geographic regions and climates for at least the next decade, and that increasingly automated mobility systems will thrive in subsequent decades."

They also expect autonomy will happen region-by-region in specific categories of transportation, resulting in wide variations in availability across the country even as the technology becomes viable.

When it comes to autonomous trucks for moving freight, the report notes that many believe that in the near term, increased automation will bring much greater impacts to trucking than to passenger-carrying vehicles.

It says numerous reports specifically address the implications of autonomous vehicles for long-haul trucking because it is the source of a large number of middle-class jobs for workers with diverse educational backgrounds.

Since there are approximately 2 million truck-driving jobs in the United States, the potential employment impact on US jobs could be significant.

The report notes that from a technical perspective, long haul trucking is promising as an early use case due to the relative simplicity and consistency of highways in comparison to crowded city streets.

Accordingly, they say, investment in Level 4 automated trucking (operating entirely without a human driver to monitor, but within a restricted geographic area) has been strong in recent years, with companies such as Embark Trucks, Kodiak Robotics, TuSimple, and Waymo reporting significant investments.

Some of these companies have announced ambitious plans that are reminiscent of some optimistic predictions that were made a few years ago for passenger-carrying Level 4 cars. TuSimple, for example, has stated that it aims to establish Level 4 service from Los Angeles to Jacksonville by 2023, followed by a nationwide Level 4 freight network in 2024.

However, the report notes the story of Starsky Robotics, which was the first company to perform a highway truck journey without a human onboard, on a 7-mile stretch of highway in Florida in 2018. Starsky, however, shut down operations in early 2020.

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CEO and cofounder Stefan Seltz-Axmacher has detailed the challenges faced in trying to launch a startup in this sector, including the difficulty of supervised machine learning algorithms to deal effectively with "edge" cases. This despite the fact that Starsky's proposed business model utilized remote supervision of unmanned trucks.

The authors believe the near term future in freight movement may be human-autonomous truck platooning, in which multiple Level 4 trucks follow a human-driven lead truck. That, they say, "may be more viable than completely operator-free Level 4 operations in the near term."

They also say early truck platooning systems will have limited impact on transport jobs, outside of changing the day-to-day work practices of driving – though it would seem each of the platooned autonomous trucks would no longer need a drivers.

The report also notes the possibility of a Level 4 system that would enable a truck driver to sleep in the cabin during part of a journey. That would allow truck driver to sleep while the automation handles long stretches of highway. Then when the driver wakes up he or she can handle trickier parts of the journey that occur on local roads.

However, they note, "It may, indeed, take many years before we see a sufficiently reliable automated system that enables a truck driver to sleep soundly, alone in the cabin for an extended journey, without some sort of remote backup supervision for the autonomous system.

In the end, the authors see the impact on driver jobs over the next decade to be modest at best. There will be some long haul driver jobs lost, but those involved in local deliveries will be relatively unaffected.

"Overall, as with taxi and bus fleets, humans will not so much disappear from truck fleets as change roles to incorporate supervision of automation as part of the job," the report concludes.

Any reaction to this analysis of autonomous trucks?  Let us know your thoughts at the Feedback section below.




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