NEW YORK (CBS NEWS) – Trucking holds a special importance in the American economy. More than two-thirds of the nation’s freight–some 10.5 billion tons of goods–is transported by truck, a feat that requires 3.5 million drivers and nearly as many heavy-class trucks. In 29 states, truck driving is the most common job.
But that might not be the case for long, as the potential savings from automating trucks are too tempting for the industry to ignore.
Trucking companies lose a whopping $49.6 billion annually due to congestion, according to the American Trucking Association. Moreover, driver error is at least partly to blame in about 90 percent of the more than 4,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries attributed to trucks and buses every year. There also is a driver shortage currently estimated by the ATA at 50,000 positions. In less than a decade, the trade group expects nearly 900,000 will be needed.
“Autonomous vehicle technology is real, folks, and it’s here whether we like it or not,” said ATA President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Spear in his 2016 “State of the Industry” speech before the trade association’s annual conference. “This technology has the potential to get trucks moving, reduce fuel burn and emissions and increase miles driven — all measurable returns to drivers.”
Truck manufacturer Peterbilt, which is part of PACCAR, and Daimler’s Freightliner are among the makers of 18-wheel tractor-trailers that are developing autonomous technology. Earlier this summer, Peterbilt agreed to build test trucks using the technology developed by tech startup Embark. Freightliner Inspiration, the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States, made its debut a few years ago at the Hoover Dam.
Cummins, which has been synonymous with diesel engines for nearly a century, last week unveiled an electric semi, a month ahead of Tesla’s plans to do introduce a similar vehicle. Elon Musk’s company is engaged in a high-stakes battle with Alphabet and Apple, among others, over self-driving technology.