Self-driving trucks are coming sooner than you probably expect. Swedish driverless truck startup Einride unveiled a new model last month that it says will be ready for the road in 2021. Google-owned Waymo and Daimler this week announced they would team up to deploy a driverless Freightliner Cascadia truck in the coming years. And autonomous truck startup TuSimple this summer joined forces with U.S. truck maker Navistar with the goal of building an autonomous semi truck by 2024.
Fully autonomous trucks could lead to $4.75 billion in savings in annual freight costs for businesses by 2030, according to an analysis by Frost & Sullivan released this week. The costs of shipping goods by truck have skyrocketed in 2020, partially because of increased shipment volume and a delay in rehiring truck drivers, according to The Journal of Commerce. At the same time, Walmart, UPS, GM, Volkswagen, and others have invested heavily in the driverless rig market. Key to the success of autonomous rigs will be the rollout of 5G across the U.S. High-capacity, low-latency wireless networks will allow humans to better operate the vehicles remotely.
Here are three things small-business owners should know about driverless trucks.
1. Driverless trucks will speed up supply chains.
Because self-driving trucks can operate for longer hours than human drivers, delivery of inventory to businesses could potentially be a lot faster. This could be particularly beneficial for restaurants and merchants that rely on speedy delivery of perishable items like fresh food. Gatik, a driverless vehicle startup that partnered with Walmart for grocery delivery in Arkansas, is already completing driverless trips--and seeing rising demand.
The company saw a 30 to 35 percent increase in orders from its existing customer base throughout 2020, as well as interest from new retail customers, says Richard Steiner, Gatik's head of policy and communications. The new clients range from grocery delivery to pharmaceuticals to auto parts to consumer electronics. Certain customers that previously had to wait two days for shipments can now have their orders filled in as fast as two hours, Steiner adds.
2. Last-mile delivery will still require human drivers.
Last-mile transportation, which is responsible for the last leg of getting a product to a customer's doorstep, is unlikely to be performed by driverless trucks any time soon, according to Steve Viscelli, author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream. One of the reasons is that delivery drivers perform a substantial amount of nondriving labor, such as finding individual apartments, deciding the best or safest location to place a package, and ensuring packages don't get damaged.
"The costs of doing that with robots is going to be astronomical," says Viscelli.
3. Widespread small-business savings will take time--if they arrive at all.
Whether self-driving trucks will help or hurt small businesses across the board remains to be seen. Viscelli warns that there's a long history of transportation being an expensive problem for small businesses, and that large companies with global supply chains and the ability to expedite delivery have always had an advantage. Add autonomous vehicles to the equation and the advantages will only multiply. Large companies will be able to invest in their own self-driving fleets and save money on transportation, giving them a further advantage over mom-and-pop stores.
"Unfortunately, I don't see an upside for small business. I see a continued downside," says Viscelli.
Shawn Kerrigan, co-founder of Plus.ai, a self-driving truck startup, says he believes that the technology will benefit businesses regardless of size, however. He added that the substantial upfront costs would pose a barrier to entry. "Trucks are not small purchases, so as with all enterprise technology, we expect that companies with larger fleets will be the first to adopt self-driving trucks," says Kerrigan.
Proponents of driverless trucks believe that more sustainable forms of transportation will need to be adopted by businesses, regardless of size. A major selling point of autonomous vehicles has been their energy-saving potential. "We believe that [Einride's technology] is for everyone who has a need for shipping and a desire to do it sustainably and intelligently, and that includes small businesses. Without everyone on board, we won't be able to reverse the massive impact that diesel freight has on our environment," says Einride CEO Robert Falck.
As driverless trucks become more established, small businesses could potentially create new ways to benefit from the technology, according to Brian Wolshon, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Louisiana State University.
"You could share this vehicle with other mom-and-pop operations if you have a vehicle that drives itself and could do self-deliveries," Wolshon says. Another idea he suggests: using the vehicles as a moving storefront.