January 13, 2014 8:30 AM, EST

iTECH: Trucking May Save $168 Billion Annually With Driverless Vehicles, Report Concludes

This story appears in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of iTECH, published in the Dec. 16 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

A new “blue paper” by the research department of investment bank Morgan Stanley estimated that autonomous — “self-driving” — vehicles could save the freight transportation in¬dustry $168 billion annually, through pro-ductivity gains and lower costs for labor, fuel and accidents.

Written by Morgan Stanley researcher William Greene, the report on the potential savings of autonomous vehicles for freight transportation is part of a broader study of “Autonomous Cars: Self-Driving the New Auto Industry Paradigm.”

The report stated that “Longhaul freight delivery is one of the most obvious and compelling areas for the application of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving technology,” leading the Morgan Stanley researchers to conclude that the technology “will be adopted far faster in the cargo markets than in passenger markets.”

With an eye on potential savings for freight transportation, Con-way Freight has been participating in a study of connected-vehicles sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation and conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. Also, Volvo Trucks played a significant role in a connected-vehicle project in Europe, in which a truck with an active human driver led a convoy of electronically connected automobiles in which a human driver was present but not actively driving.

That configuration, of a human-driven truck leading a convoy of driverless trucks, was referred to in the Morgan Stanley report as “semi-autonomous,” and the report said that longhaul freight transportation on interstate highways could be adopted within 15 years. “By using technology that exists today, truck operators could ‘tether’ rigs together and move in convoy fashion over long distances.” Trucks in the convoy would have to be broken down into human-driven units in urban areas, but still the savings for trucking companies would be significant, the report stated.

Labor savings could amount to $70 billion annually, although drivers employed to operate the autonomous rigs would have to be familiar with the complicated technology and therefore probably paid more than drivers currently are, although there would be fewer of them.

Those savings would be partially offset by the higher cost for autonomous vehicle technology, which the report estimated at $200,000 per truck over the current average cost of $123,000 for a new truck. Trucks’ productivity would be greater because they could be operated around the clock, although that would result in trucks reaching their 500,000-mile useful service life in a shorter period of time. Considering all factors, the Morgan Stanley study estimated a 30% productivity gain.

Fuel efficiency would be increased because semi-autonomous trucks would essentially be running on cruise control and following each other closely in a convoy, which would improve aerodynamics. The report cited a recent test in Japan of driverless trucks running in convoys, which produced fuel-efficiency gains of 15% to 20%.

With reduced chances of human error, which the Morgan Stanley report said was a factor in most crashes, the industry could save about $36 billion annually.

Finally, the report said that because of the high cost of autonomous vehicle technology, only large, well-financed carriers could afford it, and that would create a significant barrier to entry in-to the trucking business for small operators.

“A large carrier that transitioned quickly to an autonomous fleet would generate significant labor, fuel, safety and maintenance savings, as well as huge gains in fleet productivity,” the report stated.