Imagining the future of the vast trucking industry that will become autonomous in the coming years.
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Video by Bryce Plank and Robin West.

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The semi-truck. Our modern lives are completely dependent on them. Look around you. Every object you see probably traveled on at least one big rig. Here in America, truckers make up 2% of the workforce. But with multiple game-changing technologies converging simultaneously — and the relentlessness of the hyper-competitive global marketplace — the industry will be revolutionized within the next two decades.

This is an examination of the future of trucking.

Before we get into the technology that will turn it all upside-down, we must first understand the way this extremely fragmented industry works now. To the numbers! There are about 3 million drivers for 2.5 million trucks in the US. Those trucks are owned by 532,000 carrier companies, but 90% of these fleets have fewer than six trucks—and half of all carriers are single individuals who own and operate their own rig. Then you have the middlemen, the freight brokers. These 13,000 companies play matchmaker between the manufacturers and wholesalers (who are trying to get their goods to market) and the retailers (who make the final sale to the consumer).

Because this industry is so splintered, there aren’t universal software systems tying it all together. In fact, 67% of shippers don’t use software at all and rely solely on paper records—in 2017!

This creates tremendous inefficiency. When every piece of information has to be communicated through human interactions, drivers are frequently forced to wait hours to book or pick-up a load. And sometimes they just don’t, an estimated 20% of trucks on the road are empty.

To solve these problems, investors are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on startups competing to develop the silver bullet, a software layer that can be used by every segment of the industry.

Another area ripe for modernization is how trucks are powered. Today, medium and heavy duty trucks account for 6% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced in America.

To their credit, companies like Walmart are looking to transition to fleets powered by cleaner natural gas, the bridge fuel America has embraced to transition to renewables.

That’s where Tesla comes in. Elon Musk, CEO of the electric car manufacturer, plans to unveil an electric-powered semi-truck in the next six months.

Battery range will be the biggest obstacle to the widespread adoption of electric trucks as Tesla’s pack will probably only have a 200-300 mile range. The other challenge will be having enough charging stations — and enough power available at each station — to support fleets of Tesla trucks.

The Nikola One attempts to overcome these limitations. This gorgeous, hydrogen fuel cell truck will have a range up to 1,200 miles. The young company plans to begin leasing their trucks by 2020 for about $6,000 a month — including the cost of fuel — but it will first need to build a network of about 400 charging stations throughout the country.

Cutting the emissions of semi-trucks is great for the environment, but the real cost-saving opportunity lies in cutting out the drivers.

It’s been more than a year now since six convoys of semi-autonomous “smart” trucks arrived at the Netherlands port city of Rotterdam after leaving factories from as far away as Sweden and Southern Germany.

That experiment relied on a system called platooning, a semi-autonomous feature allowing trucks to find each other, link up, and draft to cut down on wind drag, saving energy—just like in NASCAR or the Tour de France.

And in October, a self-driving truck completed the first commercial shipment by an autonomous vehicle, delivering a load of Budweiser more than 120 miles across Colorado. A human got the truck on the highway and engaged the autonomous system, then climbed out of the driver’s seat. That truck was made by Otto motors, which was recently acquired by Uber.

And dozens of massive, 240-ton trucks are already being used in Australian mines.

So that’s the near-future we’ll see in the next 10 years: fleets of driverless trucks. Some will be designed to be autonomous, while others will have the system installed later. Many will be electric, and nearly all will be connected to efficient networks that are not slowed down by frequent human input.


    • Ivan Mmm
      Ivan Mmm

      Why most of the people thinking about losing their jobs?
      Trucks will still need a drivers.
      And even if there will be not enough work for all they will put all of those people who will have no work on welfare and everyone will be happy :)

      about 3 hours ago
    • Ricalloo

      Factories have already put many out of work with robots building everything. Construction and travel will be next. Oddly, increased automation should help humanity with reducing our burden of work. Instead it displaces people and takes away their ability to make a living. I don't know the answer, but automation is inevitable. I don't know what work can be done when all the work is automated.

      This guy mentioned universal basic income. It's an interesting idea, but seems to fail when implemented in test scenarios. Leisure time is great, but you need to do something. Lots of retired elderly people die unexpectedly when they aren't doing anything anymore.

      about 7 hours ago
    • Marcus Cole
      Marcus Cole

      This guy said truck automation will happen in baby steps and will likely take place over ten to twenty years and that that will be enough time to develop skill in another career. HEARTLESS!!! Tell that to the people who are 30 40 50 and 60 year olds when automatic trucks take over their career. Oh just go to college at 50 years old and get students loans when you have financial responsibility already and we’re probably looking to retire soon not go in debt to launch a completely new career that may or may not work. Not saying it can’t be done just not as easy as it was rolling off the lips of this guy. You need to be more concerned about the state this would put people in. You can’t be a guy who ever lifted a hammer talking this way.

      about 7 hours ago
    • Mike Mull
      Mike Mull

      seems to me that technology would replace college professors and university's before truck drivers

      about 1 day ago
    • Haki Tautari
      Haki Tautari

      I robot here we come

      about 2 days ago
    • Wolfram

      You'll always need someone there to manage the payload

      about 2 days ago
    • jamesyers1975

      I have a hard time taking anybody serious that calls it a “Semie Truck”.

      about 2 days ago
    • Sparky's Joint
      Sparky's Joint


      Also Republicans: THEY TERK ER JERBS!

      about 2 days ago
    • Jason griffo
      Jason griffo

      I don't understand, why people keep inventing things to put 1000's of people out of work?

      Then complain, no one is buying things, after they have been put out of work..

      I don't get it.?
      Why not invent something to work with humans. And not to replace them. 🤔

      Just an idea.

      about 3 days ago
    • Randy Reneau
      Randy Reneau

      It’s going to be a mess, the rich will get richer

      about 3 days ago
    • Jean-marc Aloisi
      Jean-marc Aloisi

      This may be scary to some, as job displacement is a real issue. There are alternatives to earning an income, by using your own creativity. Having the time freedom to explore alternative ways to put food on the table are a click away.

      about 3 days ago
    • Mordalo

      It will take way more than a decade to transition. Also, automation is not the pansia you think it is.

      about 4 days ago
    • Adam Huffnagle
      Adam Huffnagle

      Watch out Snowman and Bandit !

      about 4 days ago
    • Sheepsville Wales
      Sheepsville Wales

      I'm a trucker and love my job...luckily I am old enough that it shouldn't affect me. I will be retired before any of this is absolute.

      about 4 days ago
    • Sheepsville Wales
      Sheepsville Wales In reply to Sheepsville Wales

      +Flying Dog Spell what? Your answer makes no sense.

      about 3 days ago
    • Flying Dog
      Flying Dog In reply to Sheepsville Wales

      You are a trucker and can be replaced by a $2,000 computer, can you spell Duuh

      about 4 days ago
    • joseph gunter
      joseph gunter

      Good greif..

      about 6 days ago
    • staszkoalcatras

      Yet again i hear how in ten or twenty years human component will be removed from some part of industry. I work in heavy industry since 2010 and my father worked in heavy industry for 40 years and like me he heard the same thing. A dog is smarter than any computer or robot ever built and if you dont understand why...... well that is the reason why this future is not years but ages away

      about 6 days ago
    • ruokanen

      yes take jobs out,and give company owners 168 bn more money!profit profit profit nothing more

      about 6 days ago
    • James Stone
      James Stone

      Good luck in that. Moitorium In ia till 2030.

      about 7 days ago


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    • Guy Lewis
      Guy Lewis

      To all the nay sayers, nay sayers have always been wrong. This will happen

      about 7 days ago
    • Travis Lind
      Travis Lind

      Just because you can doesn’t mean you should and this shows the ignorance of the population. You cant keep cell signal but hey let’s have automated trucks that used the same highways and byways as your family

      about 7 days ago
    • Mimi Diva
      Mimi Diva

      Why this truck people don't even write the prices to sell the trucks

      about 7 days ago
    • Mike Becket
      Mike Becket

      Ssme junk new body.
      And what saves you .002 cents per mile.....

      about 7 days ago
    • Flying Dog
      Flying Dog In reply to Mike Becket

      .002 per Mike? WTF

      about 4 days ago
    • Clifford Jones
      Clifford Jones

      This is a perfect example of stupid we do not have a idea of how Manny people this going to effect if people is not driving it's bad idea

      about 7 days ago
    • Mi Carito
      Mi Carito

      This made me sick to my stomach. He claims to save 168 billion from takin jobs away. How can that be call saving?

      about 7 days ago
    • Flying Dog
      Flying Dog In reply to Mi Carito

      Every penny not wasted is a penny saved.

      about 4 days ago
    • perseverance8

      Electric trucks will definately have a market, though I think it will be limited more to ~200 mile one way trips, ~400 mile two way, for some time, meaning diesel power will be around for some time, likely a number of decades, a major problem is going to be with the power grid, operating even a single passenger EV car can consume more power than the household of it's by, potentially, multiple times depending on miles driven.

      about 8 days ago