Automation in the long haul: Challenges and opportunities of autonomous heavy-duty trucking in the United States

Published: 2018.03.29

Benjamin Sharpe and Peter Slowik

This paper investigates the state of autonomous trucking technology, including the benefits and drawbacks of adoption, and the impact on fuel use and emissions in the on-road freight sector.

Core sensing, communications, and software technologies for autonomous trucking are available today and enabling the deployment of trucks with basic autonomous features such as driver warning systems, automatic emergency braking, lane keeping assist, predictive cruise control, and adaptive cruise control. Yet advancements in sensor technologies and data processing are likely needed to safely deploy trucks with high levels of automation. Our research reveals that industry expectations for highly or fully automated trucks varies significantly, from 4–10 years to 7–20 years, respectively.

The potential benefits of autonomous trucking are substantial. Major improvements in on-road safety and reductions in fuel consumption and emissions are anticipated. Many fleets see value in adopting autonomous trucking technology, which holds the promise of improving operational efficiency and reduced vehicle downtime. In the long term, there is the potential for fleets to minimize labor costs by reducing or eliminating the need for human drivers. Before commercialization of fully autonomous trucks, many envision autonomous trucking technology will have a positive impact on driving conditions by allowing drivers to temporarily disengage, work on logistics, or rest.

Significant drawbacks and uncertainties remain, as the benefits for long-haul fleet owners may not be a win for society at large. For example, fully autonomous trucks could eliminate the jobs of millions of truck drivers. This seismic disruption in the labor market could have significant negative macroeconomic impacts if there are not sufficient policies and programs in place to support the drivers displaced from trucking jobs. In addition, little real-world data exists to validate the prospective safety and fuel consumption benefits that would result from autonomous trucking adoption.

Several autonomous trucking technologies and functions are expected to improve fuel efficiency, including automatic manual transmissions, eco-driving feedback systems, adaptive cruise control, predictive cruise control, and platooning. The fuel benefits of platooning in particular have been a major focus of research and industry R&D efforts to date. The literature reveals that the magnitude of team savings, or the average fuel savings of both the lead and platooned vehicle, ranges from 4% to 15%.

One critical area for future research is how increasing levels of truck automation will impact the emergence of zero emission freight trucks, and vice versa. At present, battery electric, hydrogen fuel cell, and catenary systems are emerging in certain short-haul applications such as drayage operations near ports. Several companies are investing in prototypes for the long-haul tractor-trailer market, and early commercialization could occur in the next two years. Identifying opportunities to link automation with electrification can maximize environmental benefits.

Laws and rules governing autonomous vehicles are in their infancy, and current rules could be barriers to technology adoption and operations. Our research indicates there is an urgent need for a strong federal regulatory program that provides a framework for vehicle certification, safety requirements, and operating protocols. Our research also reveals the need for a public-private education campaign as well as government funding for real-world demonstration projects. Such initiatives could help accelerate autonomous trucking technology adoption in a safe, socially sound manner, while also generating the real-world data needed to validate the prospective benefits of autonomous trucking.