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How Autonomous Freight Transport Will Transform Logistics

By David L. Buss

The ongoing labor shortage touched virtually every industry, including logistics. Amid rising shipping costs from fuel, companies are compelled to offer higher wages and competitive offers to secure drivers.

Wages aren't enough, however. The demand for drivers is outpacing the supply, especially as current drivers retire and fewer young candidates choose this career path.

One of the best emerging solutions is autonomous freight, or self-driving trucks.

Examining the Truck Driver Shortage

As of 2021, the driver shortage reached an estimated 80,000, according to the American Trucking Association.

About 25% of the current pool of commercial trucking drivers will be reaching retirement eligibility in the next decade, and with fewer candidates entering the field, the industry could be short 160,000 drivers by 2030.

Along with fewer drivers overall, electronic logging device (ELD) mandates limit how long current drivers can work. According to ELD mandates, drivers can only work for eight hours before taking a break, and they're limited to 11 hours total daily.

For new candidates, the FMCSA Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse prohibits around 65,000 potential drivers from driving. Many younger candidates are opting for less-demanding fields overall, leaving a gap for drivers to replace current drivers as they reach retirement.

Are Competitive Wages the Answer?

Like many other businesses, logistics employers are trying to attract drivers with competitive wages, sign-on bonuses, and comprehensive benefits packages. Pay is one of the obstacles to attract new drivers, but increasing wages passes those expenses on to shipping costs.

Other companies are taking a different approach to improve the working conditions for truck drivers. Better facilities, more time at home, and less wait time help companies gain a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent.

Can Self-Driving Trucks Bridge the Gap?

Autonomous freight can address the shortage of drivers while also improving some of the other limitations, including the operating hours. But the technology has a long way to go before it can "replace" human drivers.

Self-driving trucks can operate around the clock and traverse cross-country routes, giving companies up to 17 hours of operating time daily. Human drivers are restricted to no more than 11 hours daily.

There are some limitations to autonomous freight, however. This technology is currently used in the Sun Belt states, since self-driving trucks are unreliable in severe weather conditions like snow and fog.

Much of the country is without high-speed 5G infrastructure as well, which is necessary for effective self-driving vehicle communications and road safety.

Labor unions have expressed concerns over self-driving trucks and the potential for job losses of around 3 million. These groups actively pushing Congress to enact policies that regulate autonomous vehicles and ensure workforce training and job-loss mitigation.

Still, this trend forges on. Several manufacturers are racing to perfect automated trucking technology, including major players like Aurora, Daimler, and Tesla.

Logistics companies are also experimenting with autonomous vehicles. DB Schenker, a tech-forward logistics provider, is currently testing MAN platooning trucks in daily logistics operations.

As the technology develops, shippers can benefit from a hybrid solution that leverages the strengths of both human drivers and autonomous trucks. Human drivers will still be needed for loading and unloading, driving short routes, and navigating complex city environments or inclement weather, while autonomous trucks can be used for long-haul routes.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to the trucking industry, and shippers can benefit from a combination of human drivers and autonomous trucks to address the ongoing challenges.

Moving the Industry Forward

Autonomous freight isn't intended to replace human drivers but offer stop-gap measures to relieve the burden on logistics companies and drivers. A hybrid solution keeps human drivers operating in extreme climates and crowded cities, while autonomous freight can operate nearly around-the-clock to meet the rising shipping demand.

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Author Bio:

David L. Buss

David is CEO of DB Schenker USA, a 150 year old leading global freight forwarder and 3PL provider. David Buss is responsible for all P&L aspects in the United States, which is made up of over 7,000 employees located throughout 39 forwarding locations and 55 logistics centers.

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