For the past several years, when transportation month comes around on our editorial calendar, I have been talking about driverless trucks being right around the corner. They still are, but the corner is closer.
McKinsey has a new report that breaks the adoption of autonomous trucks into four phases, with the fourth one starting about 2027. The first phase is starting now--platoons of two trucks with a driver along in each one--but the trucks' AI software do most of the work and keep them very close together to take advantage of the aerodynamics. Essentially, the first truck makes a hole in the air and the second one is close enough to take advantage of that hole before it closes.
A second phase starts about 2023, with a group of trucks following closely, with a human driver in the front truck only. The others follow the front one in close formation, taking advantage of the hole in the atmosphere made by the first truck, to effect a great fuel savings.
By 2026, completely autonomous trucks will be operating on the Interstate highway system. Drivers will meet them at the exits and take over driving responsibilities on surface streets.
After that, a decade or so from now, completely autonomous trucks will be operating throughout the highway system.
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Not only is this going to affect drastically the cost of trucking, if you add the concept of electric trucks to the mix, the future becomes radically different from what we see today. When a truck's batteries are low, it pulls to the side of the road at a recharge station and recharges itself. The length of time this takes will not be of primary concern, since no driver is idle while this occurs.
Truck stops are removed from the landscape as well. No drivers, no fossil fuel, no need for the truck stop. One won't even need windshield wipers and lights become only a warning device for human occupied vehicles that may be around trucks.
For papermakers, converters, and retailers this is all great news. For the general economy, it will be a major disruption, eliminating jobs at the driver level down to some low-level jobs, such as clerks at truck stops. Pundits talk about low-level jobs being lost to robots and AI, and this is part of that development, but approached more obliquely.
For some paper mills, this may be a life saver. Those sited years ago and now farther away from markets, will realize a "mill nets" improvement, perhaps enough to save them.
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For safety this week, will autonomous trucks be safer? Most assuredly so.
Be safe and we will talk next week.
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