For the foreseeable future, autonomous trucks are expected to operate under a hub-to-hub model, allowing human drivers to complete the first and final miles of deliveries, according to a recent whitepaper.
The Uber Freight whitepaper shows this model allows a driver to transport a loaded trailer from the shipper’s facility to a transfer hub near the highway. This is referred to as the first mile. Then, an autonomous truck hauls the trailer to the receiver’s facility. This is the middle mile. At that facility, a second driver will deliver the freight to its destination. This is the last, or final, mile.
“This model is a stepping stone toward full autonomy,” the whitepaper shows. “It allows (autonomous truck) developers to start generating revenues in their early years of operation. This will provide them with a revenue stream that can sustain the development of self-driving technology instead of relying exclusively on external investment, in order to expand their capabilities beyond highway driving.”
A 2022 survey of Uber Freight and Transplace’s biggest shippers shows 52% are extremely likely to consider autonomous freight transportation in the future. One-quarter of the shippers are somewhat likely to do so.
According to the whitepaper, self-driving developers are focused on Level 4 self-driving technology, where a vehicle can drive under most conditions along certain corridors. The six levels of self-driving technology include levels 0, 1 and 2, in which a driver must always be engaged in the driving. Levels 3 and 4 allow the vehicle to drive under certain conditions. In Level 5, the vehicle drives in all conditions without any assistance.
The whitepaper shows the complexities of autonomous driving on city streets have led developers to focus on highway driving, which is easier to address and better defined. Under the hub-to-hub model, human drivers complete the first and last miles of the shipment, while autonomous trucks complete the middle miles or the highway miles.
In 2021, Lowell-based carrier J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. and Waymo Via collaborated on a pilot project to move freight commercially using self-driving technology. J.B. Hunt hauled more than 860,000 pounds of freight in the pilot. In January, J.B. Hunt and Waymo Via announced a long-term, strategic alliance with the goal of completing a fully autonomous transport in Texas in the next few years. In June, the carrier added home goods company Wayfair to its autonomous trucking program, completing shipments along Interstate 45 between Houston and Dallas.
According to the whitepaper, the corridor between the two cities is expected to handle between 0.36 billion and 0.66 billion miles of dry van freight in 2022. Like J.B. Hunt, Uber Freight also has a long-term, strategic partnership with Waymo. And Uber Freight is running a multiphase pilot program with Aurora in which Uber Freight is learning how to integrate the Aurora Driver into its digital freight network.
The whitepaper shows the hub-to-hub model can also benefit truck drivers who have become more inclined to handle regional or local freight as opposed to long-haul. This can be attributed to multiple factors, such as younger drivers who prefer to say closer to home. The hub-to-hub model allows for shorter hauls, so drivers can return home nightly.
According to the whitepaper, autonomous trucks are expected to cut freight costs over the long term. Carriers spend about 44% of their total operating costs on driver wages and benefits. Studies have shown that the estimated savings are between 30% and 45% of total operating costs. To achieve the savings, however, self-driving vehicles would need to complete the first and final miles of shipments.
Even so, the operating costs of trucking continue to rise. Between 2020 and 2021, the total marginal cost of trucking rose by 12.7% to $1.85 per mile, the highest on record, according to the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI). Between 2020 and 2021, fuel costs rose by 35.4%, repair and maintenance costs increased by 18.2%, and driver wages rose by 10.8%.
A recent ATRI report shows carriers focused on improving efficiency amid challenges throughout the supply chain. Between 2020 and 2021, empty, or deadhead, miles fell to 14.8%, while the average truck fuel economy rose to 6.65 miles per gallon.
According to the Uber Freight whitepaper, autonomous trucks will decrease some of the truck operating costs, including fuel and insurance, as a result of optimized driving patterns and fewer crashes. The whitepaper showed the operating cost of an autonomous truck to be $1.06 per mile, or nearly 80 cents cheaper than a human-driven truck.
However, a rapid transition to autonomous vehicles is unlikely as their high cost and technological challenges must be overcome over time, according to the whitepaper. By 2050, the number of long-distance truckload miles is expected to rise by 69%, while employment in the long-haul sector increases by 30%. “We estimate that at least 69,000 additional drivers will be needed to cover 7 billion dry van miles by 2035, and 180,000 drivers will be needed by 2050 to cover 18 billion miles,” the whitepaper shows.
Meanwhile, driver demand is expected to soar as hundreds of thousands of drivers retire over the next decade. As a result, autonomous trucks are not expected to replace trucking jobs but fill the employment gaps to keep supply chains moving, according to the whitepaper.