Full speed ahead: Bringing autonomous trucks to the road

The growing severity of the driver shortage, combined with a shrinking number of predictable and set routes and increasing customer demands, is putting the spotlight once again on autonomous trucks. While the technology continues to evolve and show promise, it can sometimes be difficult to separate hype from reality and overpromises from viable ROI. 

At DHL Supply Chain, we see the value autonomous trucks can bring to the supply chain, especially in long-haul logistics operations where they offer a new level of optimization unachievable with human operators. Autonomous trucks is one of the technologies we are actively exploring as part of our commitment to accelerating digitalization across the supply chain. 

In fact, outdoor autonomous vehicles, including autonomous trucks, is one of the technology trends explored in the recently released DHL Logistics Trend Radar (LTR) 6.0. Spanning technology, business and social trends, the LTR offers insight on the specific innovations and trends becoming reality in the next 5-10 years to inspire change, boost collaboration and ensure supply chain resilience across every industry. 

Taking a leadership role

DHL Supply Chain is investing in outdoor autonomous vehicles and working with several companies to move beyond the hype and make the transportation of freight on highways safer and more reliable through automation.  

One such partner is Volvo. DHL Supply Chain and Volvo have enjoyed a long collaborative relationship, which includes the deployment of electric vehicles. In early 2022, Volvo Autonomous Solutions (VAS) announced it would offer a new hub-to-hub autonomous transport solution designed to serve shipper, carrier, logistics service provider and freight broker customer segments. DHL Supply Chain is Volvo’s first customer to pilot the hub-to-hub solution. 

As part of this collaboration, DHL Supply Chain is now working closely with the company to understand the opportunity, identify any existing challenges and develop a plan to overcome them. Our teams are working together to ensure the technology is designed to meet the needs of the application and operate safely on the road. 

With its proven track record of safety and relentless commitment to innovation, Volvo is an ideal partner for us as we look to safely optimize trucking with automation. 

Providing a viable option for long-haul routes

Autonomous trucks promise to fundamentally change logistics, but not by completely replacing manually driven trucks in the supply chain. This is part of the hype that needs to be dispelled. DHL Supply Chain and VAS see autonomous trucks as a complement to the transport system we have today. They are not “the” solution, but another solution that will help us meet growing transport needs across the industry. 

One area where we see autonomous trucks bringing value as the technology matures is with long-haul transport. Long-haul routes, which generally cover distances of more than 250 miles, tend to be the least desirable jobs for drivers. They can require long hours on the road and days away from family and friends. With the current driver shortage, many applicants are opting out of these types of routes—at a time when many long-haul truck drivers continue to retire. 

Federal regulations prescribe driving times and breaks for drivers, which means manually operated trucks have to stop frequently. The aim, understandably, is to minimize the risk of fatigue and prevent possible driving errors. However, an autonomous truck would not be governed by these regulations, significantly cutting delivery times and operational costs. 

For example, a manually operated freight truck delivering product from California to Pennsylvania would normally take about nine days, factoring in inclement weather. A rush direct order could take five days. An autonomous truck that would not have to take breaks and could move continuously could conceivably do the same delivery in three days.

Additionally, by driving much closer together at high speeds, two or more communicating autonomous trucks could form a tight platoon, reducing drag and providing up to 20% in fuel savings and reducing emissions.

Furthermore, without the need for a human driver, autonomous trucks can allocate more vehicle space to cargo, lowering transportation costs for each trip. Some autonomous truck designs and prototypes even suggest eliminating the entire truck cab, lowering production and operations costs, while increasing loading capacity and energy efficiency.

Of course, we are not quite there yet. It will still be a few years before we see fleets of autonomous trucks on the nation’s highways. More technology advances and tests are needed, as well as the formation and standardization of rules and regulations before real benefits can be realized.

We continue to work closely with our partners, including Volvo, to evolve the technology for open-road use. While cost savings and efficiency gains are an important part of the equation, safety remains a top focus. 

According to the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), 45,900 large trucks were involved in injury crashes on U.S. roads in 2020. Safety in our facilities and in our trucks is a number one priority for DHL Supply Chain. Ideally, autonomous trucking will offer another valuable asset that will help us continue to do our part in decreasing injuries and increasing safety on the roads. 

Learn more about how DHL Supply Chain is engaged in transportation innovation. 

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