Autonomous Trucks: A Tool for the Motor Carrier Toolbox

Self-Driving Vehicles Best Suited to Supplement, Rather Than Replace, Fleets and Drivers
Trimble panelists discussing autonomous trucks
From left, Covenant’s McLelland, Kodiak’s Wiesinger and Torc’s Grigg discuss how autonomous trucks could fit into freight operations. (Seth Clevenger/Transport Topics)

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Autonomous trucks could unlock ­safety improvements and greater freight efficiency in the coming years, but it’s clear that this technology will not be a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire trucking industry.

Instead, trucking operations will introduce autonomous vehicles in specific, tailored applications that augment rather than replace their existing fleets and professional drivers.

Industry executives discussed how autonomous trucks could fit into freight transportation networks during a roundtable discussion with trucking journalists at Trimble Transportation’s 2023 Insight Tech Conference and Expo, held Sept. 24-27 in Las Vegas.

“We are building a tool for the industry,” said Walter Grigg, who leads industry partnerships for self-driving truck developer Torc Robotics. “No tool in a carpenter’s tool belt does everything. You don’t spread concrete with a Phillips head screwdriver. We are building what is effectively a Phillips head screwdriver — it has a very specific application, and it is designed to do very well in that application.”

Proponents of autonomous driving technology frequently highlight its potential safety benefits, but unmanned trucks also could help trucking companies expand their fleets by supplementing their current operations with autonomous capacity.

Seth Clevenger


“It’s allowing carriers that embrace the technology to take on more revenue, to take on more freight volume and actually grow,” said Michael Wiesinger, vice president of commercialization at Kodiak Robotics, another self-driving truck developer. “Today it’s very hard to grow because you can’t find the drivers to actually grow your fleet.”

Torc and Kodiak are operating self-driving trucks on the road today with safety drivers behind the wheel, but their goal is to enable unmanned trucks to operate autonomously on longhaul hub-to-hub routes in the years ahead.

From the fleet perspective, deploying autonomous trucks is not a question of “all or none,” said Matt McLelland, vice president of sustainability and innovation at Covenant Logistics, which ranks No. 46 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest for-hire carriers in North America.

“I don’t really see it replacing anything; it’ll just be augmenting what we already have,” he said. “It would allow us to grow the fleet without having to make any dramatic changes.”

McLelland said Covenant is interested in autonomous trucks as a way to expand its expedited fleet as a complement to its team drivers in that division.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” he said. “There are a lot of problems that still have to be figured out, and there are also a lot of reasons to be really optimistic about this. … We are really excited about the potential safety gains that come from this.”

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