Are You Terrified of that Self-Driving 18-Wheeler?

Published: March 22, 2017.


Dollars & Details:

Try not to be shocked if you look up at a huge truck driving next to you and there’s no one in the driver’s seat.  Although the media buzz is focused on self-driving cars, we may see self-driving 18-wheel and heavy trucks on highways very soon. In the U.S. alone, there are 841,000 heavy trucks (semis) designed to pull 1,915,000 trailers.  (When hooked together, we refer to them as 18-wheelers.)  This is already a $270 billion industry in America, and growth will continue hand-in-hand with an expanding economy and growing population.

It’s clear that driving a long-distance truck is hard work.  It’s hard on the body; it’s hard to concentrate; unfortunately, it can be hard to stay awake.  The self-driving 18-wheeler will soon be barreling down the highway near you.  Truck drivers can expect to earn $40,000 and up yearly for working long, tiring hours.  Stable, experienced drivers who can pass drug tests top the list for big employers and freight lines.  Some truckers operate as independent owner-operators.  Wal-Mart, America’s biggest retailer, has 6,000 trucks on the road!  Watch for Wal-Mart, ever keen on creating efficiencies, to be a world-leader in adopting advanced truck technologies.  With better routing, scheduling and practices, Wal-Mart already figures it boosted its trucking efficiency by 84.5% from 2005-2015, based on its own unique benchmarks. 

Meanwhile, Uber and a few competitors are raging ahead to Uberize the truck dispatch industry.  If a smartphone app can dispatch a car and driver to pick up a passenger on demand, this strategy can clearly be adapted to suit the scheduling of long- and short-haul trucking.  While this industry has long been based on personal relationships, reliability and cost, technology will play a major role in the near future.  The results may be as stunning for truckers as Uber and Lyft have been for taxi drivers.

Trends and Theories:

For the next phase of long-haul trucking, a truck may be driving itself, but a human trucker will be nearby—probably sitting in the back of the cab, drinking a Starbucks and catching up on paperwork via his laptop and a wireless connection.  He (or she—there are lots of female truckers) will be required to be alert, constantly monitoring the truck’s activities.  The self-driving will occur only on major, limited-access, divided highways—roads that are not currently facing construction, repair or dangerous conditions.  Later, technologies will evolve to the point that the trucker may well be napping in the back of the cab, enabling the truck to operate nearly 24/7 while the operator alternates between sleeping and working.  Under current law, drivers are generally limited to 11 hours of driving over a 14 hour period. Then, the driver must take 10 hours off-duty.  That’s why a lot of trucks are operated by two-person teams.  How about teaming up with a computer that never rests?

These advanced-technology trucks will “draft”, that is, follow each other very closely in order to reduce wind drag and increase fuel economy.  In fact, computerized, highly efficient operation will result in significant fuel savings.  Currently, fuel accounts for perhaps 30% of operating costs, but the habits of individual drivers can lead to significant fuel waste.  Self-driving trucks will also save lives.  Today, truck and bus accidents in the U.S. alone kill some 3,800 people yearly and injure another 100,000.  Many of these accidents are caused by driver fatigue.

Today, the first driverless trucks are not on highways at all, but are used with great results in special, off-highway environments, where they must traverse approximately the same route, back and forth, over and over each day. For example, driverless trucks are used to ferry ore from the bottom of some mines, up to processing areas at the top.  Then they turn around and head back into the mine, driver-free.  The immense mining firm Rio Tinto is using dozens of these trucks to move iron ore in Australia’s Pilbara region.

Not content to rest on its dispatch technology accomplishments, Uber has purchased startup Otto, a clear world leader in self-driving truck technologies.  Watch for Otto logos on test trucks, already driving down the highway, but supervised by top-notch professional drivers for now.

Ranks and Results

Top truck drivers with a lot of experience can earn $62,000 yearly or more as employees.  Owner-operators can enjoy much higher earnings, but they face all of the pitfalls of owning a business and investing in equipment, while they must be extremely vigilant about fuel and other costs.


All the information you need about the global transportation industry can be found at Plunkett Research, including our Transportation, Logistics and Supply Chain Industry center online, and our just-published, completely-updated Plunkett’s Transportation, Logistics & Supply Chain Industry Almanac, 2017 edition.