This week, Uber announced that it would close down its self-driving trucks business unit to focus on autonomous passenger vehicles. In July 2017, we predicted that logistics and shipping firms would replace human-driven double- and triple-freight trailers with human-directed platoons of autonomous trucks and fully autonomous trucks as quickly as practicable and legally permitted. Does this Uber announcement mean we were wrong? Absolutely not, and here’s why:
- Uber is cutting the acquired trucks unit loose because it’s generated more lawsuits than breakthroughs, and because the firm must focus on preparing its Volvo XC-90s to operate autonomously again after the March fatal accident in Arizona. If it’s committed to self-driving cars, as Khosrowshahi has said, Uber has enough to figure out.
- The economics of autonomy for freight transport remain extremely compelling. Experienced drivers and ship captains dislike long-haul routes that separate them from their families, and experts estimate that today, expensive trucks sit parked about 65% of the time. And because computers don’t get drowsy, self-driving trucks won’t be subject to hours of service rules (designed to reduce accidents from driver fatigue) which also strain the economics of human long-haul truckers.
- There aren’t enough truck drivers to keep up with the high demand. According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), while freight demands are up globally, driver shortfall is at the highest level on record. ATA cites the relatively high average age of the existing workforce as one of the primary factors for the shortage. This lack of trained drivers could be filled with self-driving technology. But because these semi-autonomous trucks will still need to take a human for the ride, the “coolness” of this tech could attract the young people the industry has traditionally had trouble recruiting.
- Many players are competing for the prospective huge autonomous freight market. For example, in February 2018, one of startup Embark Trucks’s autonomous trucks drove across the continental US (from Los Angeles, CA to Jacksonville, FL) without resorting to human driver intervention on any of the highway portions. And in March 2018, startup Starksky Robotics recently sent an autonomous truck along a seven-mile journey aided only by a remote teleoperator (with no human driver aboard). Meanwhile, Daimler, Tesla, and Volvo are all driving forward with their autonomous truck divisions.