The push for driverless and electric trucks, evidenced by the recent gaudy rollout of the Tesla semitrailer truck, is a fool’s errand. These “innovations” are akin to improving eight-track and cassette tapes in a world of streaming services.
The move to driverless cars, however, makes sense because the sheer number of cars on the road demands a methodical approach to manage the flow of traffic. Ancillary benefits are a (potentially huge) reduction in fatalities and injuries from accidents and a reduction in the costs of health care, law enforcement and insurance.
The use of a car is an on-demand experience in that a car is used at the whim of the driver. The driver decides when to drive, how to drive, where he or she is going, how fast, what route to take and why she or he is driving. All of these are subject to change based on the demands of the driver.
The use of trucks is much more rote than the use of cars. Trucks are mainly used as the logistical component of supply chains. Supply chains have become far more automated and rigorously scheduled in the past 20 years with the advent of lean manufacturing and emphasis on quality management. The movement of raw materials to component manufacturers to assembly plants and then to an end customer is a highly orchestrated process, and trucking provides the key integration process. Trucks use the major transportation infrastructure and exert significant stress on this infrastructure. They are also involved in accidents — with a total of 3,852 fatalities in 2015, approximately 10 percent of total vehicle fatalities.
So the goal should not be to improve a truck with electrification and driverless capabilities. The goal should be to start removing trucks from the road by developing and deploying drones that can carry loads of up to 5,000 pounds to a maximum distance of 1,000 miles, with the goal of reaching 50,000 pounds and 2,000 miles.