Going Driverless: A look into the future of the trucking industry

Autonomous trucks on open highway

Automation is a trend of the future for many industries, not the least of these being trucking. Cross-country driving to deliver goods is a staple of the modern economy, essential for the functioning of any retailer or grocer. But the trucking industry is not in a good place.

In fact, a shortage of truck drivers troubles the industry. This makes autonomous vehicles an especially appealing alternative to the current situation, in which high demand and low driver availability drive up costs of consumer goods for everyone.

With autonomous vehicles making headway in the modern world, it is only a matter of time before driverless trucks are hitting the road. However, there are some issues that must first be overcome, as well as the displacement of the workers who currently transport our goods.

Here, we’ll look into the driver shortage facing the trucking industry, the potential of autonomous vehicles, and the issues that must be overcome in navigating a future without drivers.

The Causes and Effects of a Driver Shortage

There isn’t just one simple reason why the trucking industry is hard-pressed to find drivers. A multitude of factors combine to create a problematic situation for the future of goods transportation as a whole. And this doesn’t just affect truckers.

The Causes

Truck driving is a difficult and dangerous job. With a workforce aging out without the numbers to replenish it, the field is facing compounding problems that lead to a diminished desire for new individuals to enter the industry.

Here are the biggest issues causing the truck driver shortage in the US:

Drivers aging out

According to the American Transportation Research Institute, the trucking industry is facing a problematic future. With too many drivers nearing the age of retirement in the next 10 to 20 years and not enough younger ones coming in to replace them, a shortage of up to 240,000 drivers could exist by 2022.

Difficult working conditions

Not everyone wants to sign up for a job that requires them to be away from friends and family for long periods of time. Add to that the physical toll truck driving can have on the human body, and the industry faces a diminishing lack of interest. Truck drivers face health risks due to lack of access to healthy eating and exercise while on the road, on top of frequent sleep deprivation and other physical challenges.

Rules and Regulations

Many drivers struggle to meet the requirements of the congressionally-mandated electronic logging device (ELD) rules. These rules are intended to protect all drivers on the road, but some argue they make everyone less safe by encouraging drivers to race the clock on an 11-hour driving time, 14-hour shift maximum. This has complicated the job and often reduced driver pay.

The Effects

A driver shortage affects much more than just the trucking industry. Since grocers and retailers across the country—both physical stores and online marketplaces like Amazon—rely on cost-effective modes of transportation for their goods, high costs and a lack of drivers mean either no products or higher priced ones.

Without the drivers needed to transport goods across the country, there is a risk that some areas—especially more rural communities—might not get the supplies they need to maintain a healthy and comfortable lifestyle.

Additionally, the driver shortage impacts people by raising the cost of goods across industries. Amazon, for example, had to raise the price of its Prime subscription, while businesses like Coca-Cola suffered losses due to not being able to meet demand. These costs and losses are often passed on to consumers with higher-priced items, making life more expensive for everyone in the nation.

But new technology offers a potential solution.

The Potential of Autonomous Vehicles

Autonomous vehicles—that is, vehicles driven by artificial intelligence programs rather than a human—are a widely discussed solution to the driver shortage problem faced by the trucking industry. Not only do autonomous vehicles stand to reduce costs in goods transportation, but they could potentially automate a job that frequently puts human health at risk.

Driverless vehicles are here. California has already legalized light-duty self-driving vehicles, with permits available at the DMV. Strict rules are in place for the testing and usage of these vehicles, but through the ability of AI to learn and develop at paces no human could achieve, progress in the development of this technology will come sooner rather than later.

Because nearly 94 percent of road accidents in the U.S. are caused by human error, the potential for autonomous vehicles to create a safer, cheaper world is worth looking into. This technology is being developed and popularized by companies like Tesla and Amazon, and as time goes on, the probability that self-driving vehicles are the future increases.

First, there are just a few issues to overcome.

Issues to Overcome

Before anyone trusts self-driving vehicles enough to make them a regular part of everyday business, these vehicles need comprehensive solutions to four vital issues. These are:

Ability to respond intelligently to any situation

While the technology is improving all the time, no one will trust a driverless truck on the road until it can respond with human-like reflexes and adaptability to any driving situation. With AI, companies are attempting to train in this adaptability through driving simulators that allow the system to attain 100 years of experience in a day.

Potential for hacking

Like any connected device, a smart truck runs the risk of being hacked. Cybersecurity can be implemented to protect against hacking, but it is uncertain if consumers and businesses will trust an autonomous vehicle enough with the possibility of hacking always out there. Without efficient digital protections, self-driving vehicle integration is a ways off.


Right now, the tech for autonomous vehicles is too expensive to be a comprehensive solution to immediate problems. With enough drivers still available that wages are maintained at a lower rate, companies can save money by keeping their drivers rather than investing in autonomous tech.

Loss of jobs

The greatest issue faced in converting to driverless trucks is the loss of livelihood human drivers face. Without a comprehensive plan to transition these workers into other careers and income streams, we are facing the unemployment of up to 3.5 million Americans.

Trekking into the Future

Autonomous vehicles are likely the future of the trucking industry. All the time, new autonomous truck testing is happening across the country as companies attempt to work out the existing issues to bring a safer and more cost-effective future to the trucking industry.

While driverless trucks might still be years or even decades away, the driver shortage is here now. Comprehensive and technological solutions are needed where the market is currently failing, and AI might just be the solution trucking needs.


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