to nap and relax in the cab while Otto does
the driving, says Berdinis, drivers could
use the time away from the wheel to catch
up on trucking’s heavy paperwork, locate
a “backhaul” load that would pay for the
return trip, chat with family and friends,
learn a second trade, or run a business.
“And while they’re doing it, the drivers are
still getting paid for driving,” he says.
These potential benefits could help
with recruiting and training truck drivers—a key concern, because there’s actually
a big shortage of drivers in both the U.S.
and Europe. The American Trucking Associations pegs the current U.S. shortage at
about 50,000 drivers and predicts that a
total of nearly 900,000 new drivers will be
needed over the next eight years. “We have
customers calling us up saying they’ll buy
10 new trucks from us if we can provide
the drivers, too,” says Carl Johan Almqvist,
who heads product safety at Volvo Trucks.
One endorsement of the potential benefits of autonomous trucks to both trucking companies and drivers has come from
the state government of Ohio, a trucking
hub that’s home to more than 70,000 drivers. The state has committed $15 million to
set up a 35-mile stretch of highway outside
Columbus for testing self-driving trucks.
The heads of both the American Trucking
Associations and the Ohio Trucking Association have publicly suggested that autonomous trucks will be good for truckers.
However, the technology is not just
a way to make the job more attractive to
human drivers; it’s potentially a way for
trucking companies to fill in for drivers
who aren’t available. And if self-driving
systems someday become accepted as
capable of standing in for drivers, why
keep human drivers on at all? After all,
drivers account for a third of the per-mile
costs of operating a truck.
Even if, as is likely for the foreseeable future, drivers stay on in the cab of
self-driving trucks, it’s not clear the economics will work out in their favor. That’s
because there’s currently no regulation
that would require companies to pay drivers for the time they spend in the back of
the cab. What’s more, freight companies
are likely to be forced to convert the cost
savings from always-rolling trucks into
lower hauling charges in order to compete.
Those dropping fees could put pressure on
truckers’ pay. “If load prices get pushed
down with this technology, the company
will say, ‘You didn’t do as much driving, so
you don’t make as much,’” says Mugriyev.
Is Otto’s technology up to safely piloting 80,000 pounds of truck down a busy
highway? Having a driver in the cab won’t
do much to make up for any shortcomings
A key detail not seen in most
images of the Budweiser delivery:
Otto staff and police riding nearby
in cars to ensure safety. Inset:
Otto’s facility in San Francisco.