The supply chain demands on the road today for faster delivery, for more deliveries, is pushing human limits. They are pushing infrastructure to the breaking point.
As it stands today, we're facing a future of more trucks on the road, more drivers driving farther and longer to connect suppliers with manufacturers, manufacturers with retailers, retailers with customers.
It's a crowded road getting busier every day, getting more dangerous with every skipped break and every extra mile.
However, new technologies are on the horizon to fundamentally change this picture.
Driverless trucks—navigating safely without mandatory rest periods, without fatigue or road hypnosis or any of the other productivity and safety concerns or our current fleet—represent what those in the industry see as the future of commercial trucking.
It's a future guided by computers rather than by the sentient hands of a driver, a future directed by precision rather than humanity.
"Whatever happens, it's going to be big, I can tell you that," said Julia Molander, an attorney with Cozen O'Connor who serves as an adviser to insurers.
"Drones," she said, will look like "completely small potatoes compared to autonomous vehicles."
Ted Scott, director of engineering for the American Trucking Associations, sees autonomous trucks as a matter of when, not if. That's because a number of semi-autonomous features already are being incorporated into today's trucks.
The question instead, he said, is whether these autonomous vehicles will be occupied by a driver or not.
"If I have to spend $150,000 to automize a truck, why would I put a driver in it?" Scott asked. "It doesn't make sense to put a driver we're paying $50,000 to $100,000 in a truck."
Removing drivers from trucks solves a lot of the problems facing the trucking industry – the driver shortage, accidents and fuel costs. It's just a matter of public and government support of the move, which is why Scott sees fully-automated trucks ruling the roads as a "long way off."
While the industry is still in the "big picture information gathering" stage, as Molander calls it, semi-autonomous features already are making their way onto the road.
From adaptive cruise control to automatic braking to backup controls to blind spot alerts, semi-autonomous driver-assistance technologies are being manufactured into new vehicles.
"I think that probably what will ultimately happen is we'll have more and more of those semi-autonomous features that ultimately will organically grow into an autonomous vehicle," Molander said.
Dan McGehee, an occupational health professor at the University of Iowa and a driver for MyCarDoesWhat.Org – a national campaign by the National Safety Council and the University of Iowa to educate the public about autonomous vehicles – calls these features "safety technologies."
And, when you look at the data, it's hard to disagree.
Eight-seven percent of injury crashes involving large trucks (those with a gross vehicle weight rating over 10,000 pounds) in which the large truck was determined to be at fault were caused by drivers, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Compare that to the 10 percent of large truck at fault injury crashes caused by the vehicle.
In taking the driver out of the picture, the reduction in the percentage of accidents caused by drivers will be "significant," Scott said.
"You're certainly going to reduce it. You may even get to the point that you invert it," Scott said.
Despite that, government agencies and the public still are wrestling with the idea of completely removing a driver from the vehicle, and thus removing a driver's ability to seize control, Molander said.
"The issue remains whether there will be a requirement to have steering wheels and brakes," Molander said. "I think that's probably a matter of human perception adjustment."
Read the full story of the Driverless Fleet on EHS Today.
EHS Today is a NED companion site in Penton's Manufacturing & Supply Chain Group.