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Driverless Trucks Are Going To Change the Industrial Landscape

Erik Dolan-Del Vecchio
Erik Dolan-Del Vecchio
Freelance Writer, VTS

Uber made headlines testing its self-driving cars in Pittsburgh and Google has been working on its own for years, but something you don’t hear a lot about is self-driving trucks — and that’s likely to change. Many of America’s largest companies realize the benefits promised by driverless trucks and experts are already saying municipalities, developers and investors alike need to start considering the impact they will have on commercial real estate.

There is more demand for driverless trucks than their car counterparts

The largest companies in the country want driverless trucks. Any firm with extensive logistical operations stands to benefit hugely from them. On the other hand, many people actually like driving their cars and are somewhat wary of letting a computer take the wheel. Tech experts say that this uneven landscape in demand will make driverless trucks a reality on our highways sooner than driverless cars.

And the benefits are there, especially since trucking operations are already struggling with a driver shortage. Logistics experts see driverless trucks as the opportunity to save big by running 18-wheelers around the clock without having to pay drivers, none of whom are allowed to drive more than 11 hours straight.

Then there’s the safety side. Only 1% of vehicles on the road in the US are trucks yet they account for 5% of all miles driven and cause a full 10% of deadly accidents, according to logistics experts. It’s practically a given that well programmed, driverless vehicles will cut down on those figures and make the highway a safer place.

Self-driving trucks will change the logistical landscape

Joe Dunlap, head of the supply chain services practice at CBRE, says, “Driverless trucks will be a game-changer for the industrial markets. They can be made fairly reliable on highways, and we’re already facing a massive driver shortage.” That’s big news for industrial real estate. And, as Dunlap explains, autonomous cargo vehicles will eventually drive into warehouses with robotic unloading and interior sorting, which will change distribution center design and site selection.

You also can’t underestimate how much time driverless trucks will save. Self-driving vehicles have the capacity to be on the road way longer than a human — robots don’t get tired, after all. Yet current federal regulations limit the number of hours a driver can work to between 400-500 miles a day. That forces large warehouses to be pretty close to the populations they serve to ensure drivers don’t go over the limit. But if computers take over, warehouses will be able to move further away to cheaper, more remote areas. And they would have a good reason to do so, considering the largest costs in conventional warehouses are labor, time and real estate. Cutting into any one of those three would drastically boost the bottom line.

Challenges ahead

Despite all the excitement surrounding self-driving trucks, don’t expect to see hordes of them on the roads tomorrow. There are still serious obstacles — both regulatory and technical — to overcome before this dream becomes a reality.

The problem with figuring out how to design driverless vehicles so they comply with regulations is simple: there are currently very few regulations. Yet experts doubt that will always be the case. Some states, such as Florida, Michigan, and California, are leading the way and introducing their own regulations for autonomous vehicles. While there is no guidance at the federal level, regulators recently hinted they would not try to impede the sector’s progress, with Jeffrey Zients, director of the National Economic Council, saying “We envision in the future, you can take your hands off the wheel, and your commute becomes restful or productive instead of frustrating and exhausting.” Zients added that he believes automated vehicles  “will save time, money and lives.”

On the tech side, driverless vehicles are still in their infancy. Nowhere is this more obvious than Uber’s pilot program — the cars are nowhere near fully autonomous yet. They still have a driver behind the wheel and an engineer in the passenger seat carefully monitoring the car’s movement. While the gains they’ve made technologically are impressive, there is still a lot more to be done.

Still, engineers have made substantial progress in the middle ground. Earlier this year, a platoon of five trucks drove through Spain as part of the Safe Road Trains for the Environment project. Only the lead truck had a driver — the others simply followed his vehicle using software that keeps them in a tight formation. This saves on labor costs and also fuel, since the trucks can draft each other. While this solution still requires one human behind the wheel, it’s a step forward toward the future of fully automated vehicles — a future that seems more certain by the day and promises to impact commercial real estate.

Erik Dolan-Del Vecchio
Freelance Writer | VTS
Erik Dolan-Del Vecchio
Erik Dolan-Del Vecchio is a freelance writer focused on national CRE news.
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