Trucks That Drive Themselves

by | Jan 1, 2022 | Article

On the night of December 22,  2021, a company called TuSimple based in San Diego had a computer-driven, autonomous 18-wheel semi-trailer truck drive 80 miles at night from a rail yard in Tucson, Arizona, to a distribution center in Phoenix, Arizona. Without a human in the cab. 

TuSimple claims that this is a first, “the first successful fully-autonomous run by a… semi, on open public roads with no human intervention.”  

In reality, this TuSimple drive is just the tip of a revolution. Over 60 companies are competing in the USA, Europe, and China to hand the job of truck and taxi driving to computers.  Many of these companies have scored impressive successes. 

The biggest player is Google’s Waymo, which has raised nearly seven billion dollars  in funding and claims it has racked up “over a decade of deep autonomous driving experience including millions of miles on public roads.”   Waymo has been making local deliveries in Phoenix, Arizona, for years using self-driving minivans, and is collaborating with UPS to make self-driving semi-trailer  deliveries between Dallas and Houston.

But there’s more. In Arizona, The Phoenix New Times reports that Waymo’s self-driving cars are  “zipping around central  Phoenix” and “gathering in grocery store parking lots.”

According to  the newspaper, last year Waymo reported it had racked up “6.1 million miles of …driving operations, of which 65,000 miles were driverless without a person behind the steering wheel.” What’s more, “In early 2020 the company took passengers on more than 1,000 rides each week roughly 5% of which were driverless.”   Yes, a thousand rides a week.

Meanwhile, Waymo is partnering with Chinese automaker Geely to produce a fleet of all-electric self-driving robotaxis  for use in America. 

In second place in the autonomous trucking race is a company called Plus, which “announced it had completed a record 2,800-mile cross-country freight run across the US in just 3 days.”   That was way back in 2019. 

Amazon has ordered one thousand of Plus’s self-driving systems for its delivery fleet.   And Plus is working to become a major player in freight delivery in China. 

At Number three in the race for self-driving trucking is TuSimple, the company that just completed its 80 mile run with no human in the cab.  Then there are over 58 other companies in the race. Which means that the self-driving features that will reach your car soon are being developed and road tested for you in trucks and robotaxis. 

There’s a reason for the rush to eliminate human drivers.  There are 3.6 million truck drivers today.  But they have a problem. In the late 20th century, long-distance trucking offered a lifestyle that the restless found appealing. Being a long-distance trucker meant freedom and a high income—roughly $110,000  a year in today’s dollars. 

Then, in 1980, the trucking industry was  deregulated.   The government no longer set the prices.  The race among companies and free lancers to offer trucking at the lowest possible rate drove truck drivers’ earnings down to less than $52,000 a year.  

And the conditions for truckers were brutal—living in your truck’s cab, sleeping in the cab’s alcove, bathing at truck stops, working all your waking hours, and rarely seeing your family.

Which may be why the turnover rate among truck drivers has soared to 90%. 

But this nosedive in truckers’ wages drove down the prices that you and I pay at Walmart or Amazon. 

Now self-driving trucks may up the speed of our deliveries  and lower the cost  even more.  And this shift may come not long after covid has changed our shopping habits and trained us to order online and to depend on quick shipping for delivery to our homes.