Personal Freedom

Autonomous Trucks Can Overhaul the Logistics Industry

John Croxton is a Policy Research intern with the Libertas Institute, a free-market think tank in Utah. He is currently working on a Master’s degree in economics at George Mason University.

As life after the COVID-19 pandemic resumes, one job remains in high demand: long-haul trucking. Truckers work brutal shifts to deliver goods across the country, resulting in an annual turnover rate of over 90 percent despite good pay and minimal job training times. Long hours on the highway also result in fatality rates eight times higher than the US average (and twice as high as that of police officers).

However, self-driving vehicle firms hope to move into the long-haul trucking market, starting with longer highway routes that involve a minimum of complex city driving. One such firm, TuSimple, recently conducted a full demonstration of its self-driving truck over a 950-mile route from Arizona to Oklahoma (with a human driver for the initial 60 miles).

It’s a useful prototype for the future of driving. Artificial drivers don’t need to sleep, which could allow faster deliveries of produce and other perishable items as well as higher margins of safety for other cars on the road. Their lower costs would also drive increased usage to enable faster, more consistent delivery of products to consumers. 

As electric trucks come to market with efficient power consumption and lower maintenance costs, America could become the world leader in next-generation transportation and logistics systems. Rapid, cheap, and green trucking delivery could act to boost productivity with far-flung areas outside of major ports and rail networks able to benefit disproportionately. At a time when major construction projects like new rail lines are becoming almost untenably expensive, trucking offers one way out of our infrastructure dilemma. 

Electrified, automated trucking would pack the double punch of reduced operating costs and increased delivery speed in a virtuous cycle of productivity gains and investment. For that cycle to begin, though, regulators will have to give self-driving companies some slack to innovate. 

Arizona has illustrated the value of a light-touch approach to pre-emptive regulations on self-driving vehicles, allowing fully driverless operations providing vehicles follow the rules of the road. But the state of Utah could play a valuable role in encouraging firms to improve their driving in more varied environments or tricker driving conditions. It could well spur the development of local AI, lidar and sensing, or electric vehicle talent in the process.

Utah can benefit greatly from adopting a similar approach to autonomous vehicles. Libertas Institute created the Market Empowerment Framework as a method of evaluating the risk profile of technologies to incorporate regulations following a least restrictive means approach. In doing so, states can strike a proper balance between protecting consumers and unleashing innovations that can ultimately result in benefits for Utahns and the rest of the country.