Whether we like the idea or not, most of us imagine an era of self-driving cars as a time when drivers will be nothing more than the person in control of, what today we call, the key fob. Their primary role in the transporting process will be to summon their car and then provide it with a destination. At this point, we have no idea if such drivers will need to meet any requirements to be in charge of a vehicle. Will age matter? Vision? Who knows?
Developing nearly hand in hand with driverless technology, the transition of propulsion from internal combustion to electric is being encouraged, subsidized and mandated by governments around the world. Its eventual domination as the chief power source for vehicles seems inevitable.
Just as the space race produced all sorts of unforeseen technologies making our every-day lives easier and better, such as Velcro, microwave cooking and so forth, driverless and electric technologies will have far-reaching effects. One collateral impact that not only seems certain, but will probably evolve more quickly than retail self-driving cars themselves, according to Ark Investment Management (ARK), is within the hauling industry.
According to ARK, when it comes to moving goods, the confluence of electric power and driverless technology could well make long-haul trucking the most efficient, least expensive mode of moving goods over land. If so, it will totally disrupt the hauling industry as we know it today.
Considering a range of variables, ARK calculated the per-mile cost of moving one ton of goods by several modes of transportation. Not surprising: air was most expensive at $1.36 per mile. Long-haul trucking was second at 12 cents per mile, followed by rail at four cents and barge at one cent per mile.
Although there are logistics involved with rail travel, making it less convenient than long-haul trucking, its comparatively low cost to that of trucking keeps it competitive. But what if transporting by truck suddenly became as affordable, or even cheaper, than rail?
According to ARK, reducing the per-mile cost of trucking rests on squeezing more work out of each truck, and reducing (or eliminating) labor costs. It forecasts that, as a fuel, electricity will be cheaper than diesel. Moreover, electric motors require less maintenance than diesels. With the introduction of driverless technology, human truck drivers will no longer be required. This will not only eliminate most labor costs, but will also mean that the required downtime for drivers to rest can be utilized for hauling goods, thus accelerating deliveries and increasing efficiency and productivity.
Gazing into a future with fully autonomous electric trucks, ARK’s numbers predict the trucking cost per mile will plummet from 12 cents to three cents. This would make trucking more affordable than rail by a penny per mile.
True, trucking would probably not completely absorb all tonnage shipped by rail, but it would likely assume much of it, nearly doubling trucking ton-miles to around 3.4 trillion ton-miles annually. Obviously, this would translate into more semis on the highway, as well as more wear and tear on the infrastructure. On the other hand, because retail prices include shipping costs, goods we buy should drop in price.
With several companies, such as Volvo, Volkswagen, Waymo and Tesla currently developing autonomous truck platforms, ARK expects to see fully driverless electric trucks available commercially in as few as five years. Tempering those expectations, however, ARK cautions that such driverless trucks will probably see highway duty only for the foreseeable future.
What it means to you: No matter when fully self-driving cars are finally in showrooms, we can expect autonomous technology to touch our lives in numerous ways in the meantime.