What do fleets want?

Sept. 3, 2015
That’s the question no one seems to be asking

It’s no longer a question of whether we’ll have autonomous or self-driving cars and trucks. Of course we’re not there yet, not by a long shot. But while the engineers working on autonomous vehicles might not agree, public discussion seems to have settled the question of technical feasibility. The general consensus at this point is that building a practical autonomous vehicle is a bit like laying pipe—we know where it has to go, now we just have do the work and dig the ditch.
That question settled, people have moved on to exploring the implications once that technology actually gets on the road. 

Take a new report from the Brookings Institution, for example, that predicts widespread use of autonomous vehicles could put many local governments in deep financial trouble. Unlike trucks and cars driven by fallible humans, autonomous vehicles don’t run red lights, exceed the speed limit, exhibit road rage or engage in any other “fineable” behaviors. In Los Angeles alone, those law-abiding autonomous vehicles could dry up the millions of dollars collected for traffic infractions, which is revenue the city depends on to fund a whole range of civic services.

The institute’s concern certainly pulls the fig leaf off the safety argument made for, shall we say, vigorous traffic enforcement. But the bigger point is we’re no longer arguing about if autonomous vehicles are possible, if they are safe, if anyone will want them. As a society we’ve all accepted that they are coming, and now we’re down to considering the finer points of what that will mean. 

Among other implications foreseen by the Brookings Institution are lost fuel tax revenues due to more efficient routing and less congestion once humans are taken out of the driving decisions and fewer trucks and cars are bought due to that efficiency increase. How will we replace those lost registration and fuel tax dollars so we can continue to invest in our infrastructure and roadways?

The report also predicts “widespread unemployment within the taxi and trucking industries.” I think that’s a bit of hyperbole meant to attract attention, or at least a scenario based on truly driverless vehicles, which aren’t even on the horizon yet. But the takeaway is people clearly accept self-driving vehicles as inevitable, if not tomorrow then in the very near future.

For me, what’s missing in all this think-tank speculation is any mention of what people who operate truck fleets want from any transition to autonomous, or more likely semi-autonomous vehicles.

Your trucking businesses move over 70% of the freight in this country. That makes trucking a key to our economic health. And in this age of interlocking economies, we also need to acknowledge that trucking plays a similar role around the world. So what fleets expect and want is an important issue.

Credit is certainly due to truck manufacturers for investing significant research resources in the enabling technologies, but as the ultimate buyers and users of self-driving trucks, your opinions need to be voiced. What do you want? What will convince you to invest in self-driving trucks? And most importantly, what do you see as the emerging pitfalls and opportunities for your fleet as autonomous trucks move from concept to the real world?

I say it’s time to get that conversation started. You can contribute by emailing me your ideas ([email protected]) as we gear up to explore the impact of autonomous vehicles on the truck fleet industry. My only prediction is there are bound to be at least a few surprises.

About the Author

Jim Mele

Nationally recognized journalist, author and editor, Jim Mele joined Fleet Owner in 1986 with over a dozen years’ experience covering transportation as a newspaper reporter and magazine staff writer. Fleet Owner Magazine has won over 45 national editorial awards since his appointment as editor-in-chief in 1999.

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