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Preparing for the Autonomous Future of Trucking


As members of the workforce, public policy proponents, technology strategists and business leaders grapple with the technological, economic and cultural fall-out of self-driving trucks, what happens next could serve as a template for other fields influenced by AI.

The promise of robots bringing much needed efficiencies to long-haul trucking comes with positives and negatives. We are on the cusp of an artificial intelligence (AI)-based world in which it is less likely that a parent will lose a beloved child due to a drunk driver. We are also on the brink of an era in which millions of middle-aged truck drivers could be displaced and struggle to earn a living wage. For better or worse, the very definition of a “driver” is set to be upended, along with all associated professions.

No Hands: The Autonomous Future of Trucking

In many respects, autonomous trucking represents a canary-in-the-coal-mine for jobs in other industries, posing a good opportunity for business leaders, technology strategists and public policy proponents to assess how to successfully manage the transition. To help leaders navigate the road ahead, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work studied the factors enabling autonomous vehicle technology and their impact on the long-haul trucking sector. Our research reveals:

  • Full implementation of automation technology in trucking could significantly reduce operating costs and double productivity.

  • The future has already arrived for autonomous driving (think Alphabet subsidiary Waymo, General Motors, etc.).

  • Long-haul driving jobs might give way to short-haul driving.

  • Three-part harmony is urgently needed for state, local and federal policies, standards and regulations.

  • Autonomous truck hacking is a matter of national security.

The Impact of Autonomous Trucking

Nearly 100 years after Francis Houdina’s “phantom autos” of the 1920s, we’ve finally arrived at the precipice of fully self-driving vehicles. Much of this autonomous technology is currently available and undergoing tests for commercial use. Alongside 3-D printing and the Internet of Things (IoT), autonomous vehicles are a force directly advancing supply chain management optimization.

In addition to significant cost savings from eliminating driver pay, autonomous long-haul payloads can reach their destinations in approximately half the time of their human-driven counterparts. That means leafy greens from the West Coast could arrive in the southern U.S. twice as fast, adding to their shelf life and flavor while driving down costs. Even with government leaders prioritizing less rush-hour congestion over faster deliveries by sidelining trucks for certain timeframes, freight companies could still exceed the most efficient human drivers of today.

Nevertheless, there is an ongoing debate about when self-driving technology will be ready for deployment to the masses, and what, exactly, “ready” looks like. Google, Uber, Tesla and a myriad of car companies are all dashing toward the finish line of deploying market-ready technology.

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has established benchmarks for measuring vehicle autonomy levels, which range from 0 to 5 (see Figure 1). While the dynamic driving environment of busy city streets calls for SAE Level 5 autonomy for passenger vehicles, the mostly highway-based journeys of semi-trucks can benefit from less comprehensive levels of autonomy that are easier to program and deploy.


Figure 1

While the productivity boon for drivers would be immense, the advent of autonomous trucking forces us to reckon with the end of the truck-driving career as we know it. To say it’s a cause for concern is an understatement. If preventative measures are not taken, more than half of the states in the country, reportedly, stand to face a job market collapse equivalent to the implosion of mining communities across coal country.

Not that the loss of long-haul will spell the end of the trucker altogether. With proper planning and workforce education, opportunities exist for more jobs, with improved conditions, in the industry. Trucking jobs will remain, but they’ll look very different from the “Convoy across the U.S.A.” archetype of yesteryear. Even as long-haul trucking diminishes, for example, local driving jobs will be more plentiful than ever, as self-driving technologies reduce the overall cost of transporting goods, which in turn could spur consumer demand and thus trucking volume.

An Urgent Need for Regulations

Government regulations will play a key role in shaping the conversation around the evolution of autonomous vehicles, and the policy report released by the Department of Transportation (DoT) is a step in the right direction. The document serves less as law and more as a framework for local legislators to follow — outlining the rules for autonomous vehicles, covering how data should be shared with federal regulators, guidelines for manufacturing and sales of vehicles, and privacy protections for passengers.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives have attempted to build upon the DoT policy by approving the SELF DRIVE Act in September 2017. The bill provides guidance for automakers on how many vehicles they can test, affirms the safety assessments of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to determine vehicles’ eligibility for consumer use, codifies rules for access to safety data, and outlines provisions for public education programs. Nevertheless, it overlooks key elements as such as provisions for commercial vehicles, likely due to lobbying by trucking unions.

As lawmakers grapple with pressure from various factions, including constituents, automakers and labor unions, we believe that the following points serve as a roadmap for resolving key policy issues involved:

  • Don’t let SELF DRIVE self-destruct. The SELF DRIVE Act is good, but it doesn’t offer a policy prescription for the new roles, skills and jobs that are likely to bubble up as a consequence of autonomous trucking.

  • Knowledge is the power-train for the policymaker. Many lawmakers lack the subject matter expertise to assess how laws will shape or hinder autonomous trucking. They should seek advice from experts in academia, tech innovators and concerned commuters.

  • Data is the new oil. Large-scale collection of data from sensors installed on vehicles has significant surveillance implications. Lawmakers should define how this data is stored and used.

  • Learn from the past. The Interstate Highway System’s adverse impact on communities serves as lesson for lawmakers. They must consider the human cost of new transportation paradigms and commit to equitable access for all.

Why Safety is Crucial in the Long Run

Nearly 1.3 million people, globally, die in vehicular crashes each year, and technology could provide a remedy. Consider that the building block features of autonomous driving have already made our roads safer. Brake assist keeps distracted drivers from rear-ending other motorists. Lane departure warnings cut down on side-swiping collisions. And the myriad of cameras focus additional eyes on the road when two won’t do. These technologies are lauded by the public and augment the driving ability of safety-conscious truckers.

That said, as humans gradually cede control to software and machines, important questions arise regarding liability for accidents. Is it the bot, or the driver? There are no easy answers. The issues of safety and liability are more likely to slow the spread of autonomous vehicles than any technology hiccups or setbacks.

Hacking and Hijacking

As breaches of valuable consumer data continue to prove, no digital system is ever completely safe from hackers, and these vulnerabilities are exacerbated when organizations fail to prioritize security and develop contingency plans. Leaders in the autonomous trucking ecosystem must equip themselves with intelligence and then incorporate that knowledge into strategic decision-making. Cyber warfare is an ever-evolving landscape, and mitigating the loss of reputation and revenue caused by breaches is well worth the time and resources invested.

As a matter of national security, protecting the transportation grid of the future will be akin to securing the nation’s power grids, water treatment facilities and nuclear plants. We foresee entirely new jobs resulting from these and other needs. Highway controllers, for example, will be one of the most in-demand roles of big municipalities by the end of the next decade. People in these full-time positions will monitor, regulate, plan and manipulate air and road space, monitoring and programming the automated AI platforms used for space management of autonomous vehicles and devices.

A New Way Forward

Despite the challenges and concerns, a window of opportunity is emerging for forward-thinking businesses and leaders in the area of autonomous trucking. The progress made provides a vision of how the industry may develop, aided by AI-powered vehicles. The failures, meanwhile, show just how slim the margin for error will be for these vehicles and the toll paid when they do not function properly. Within that window exists a framework from which businesses reliant on freight transportation can begin working now to optimize the supply chain for the future.

Here are five rules of the road for leaders to stay in the fast lane of autonomous trucking:

Be on time, but know when to go.

With their ability to cover 1,200 miles per day, autonomous vehicles are likely to give rise to major pricing impacts, fundamentally changing the trucking industry and every other method of shipping. Leaders should exercise cautious optimism and begin preparing now with forward-looking investments.

Stay in your lane.

Lawmakers will enable this ecosystem and set its rules. Allow them to do their job while your organization navigates the rules and regulations of the nascent self-driving industry.

Play nice with the robots.

Resistance is futile, but that won’t stop Luddites from trying. Creating a role in your organization for planning, organizing and encouraging human-machine teaming can help your organization develop a strategy for harmony between workers and AI.

Prepare for the fast lane.

Shipping speeds will double, along with your customers’ expectations. Position your company to meet the needs of their new normal. With data more plentiful than ever, acting on that data quickly, at scale, will be paramount.

Keep your eyes on the road.

Safety is the most important element when it comes to the proliferation of self-driving vehicles. Prioritize safeguards against hacking attempts, and limit operations to scenarios within the capabilities of the autonomous vehicle technology you employ.

To learn more, read the full report, “No Hands: The Autonomous Future of Trucking,” visit the Cognizant Center for the Future of Work, or contact us.

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Preparing for the Autonomous Future of Trucking