Driverless Trucks: A Different Idea

Tags: Logistics, Technology , Supply Chain

Brittain Ladd is Vice President, Supply Chain Management and Logistics Consulting, Six-Pager Consulting, 214-205-6621

I admire and respect the individuals and companies working on perfecting driverless trucks. However, I don't believe driverless trucks are an innovative concept. In fact, I believe just the opposite: Designing driverless trucks is the wrong solution for transportation.

There is so much effort and capital being directed at wanting to make trucks driverless that I have to ask: If you don't need the driver, why do you need the truck?

Therein lies the crux of my argument. Driverless trucks are not the answer to making transportation more efficient or reducing costs.

Frankly, some driverless truck proponents remind me of the individuals who tried to convince investors and average citizens that a new technology introduced in 2001 would "change not only transportation forever, but also create a better society for all." That technology was the Segway, which failed to achieve anywhere near its predicted popularity or use.

If the purpose of the truck is to do nothing more than pull a trailer, wouldn't it be better to motorize the trailer using a chassis so that a truck isn't required? By "motorized chassis" I mean a driverless chassis capable of hauling trailers that today are pulled by trucks. I want the chassis to be able to haul the same weight that a truck can pull to ensure there is no loss in efficiency.

A transportation model that requires the use of a truck to pull a trailer is less innovative, less efficient, and more costly than creating a motorized chassis capable of hauling a trailer without the use of a truck.

Benefits of Motorized Trailers

Motorized trailers could provide these increased capabilities:

  • By installing cameras on a motorized chassis, a trailer could conceivably back itself into a dock door. Or a person could be tasked with opening a panel on the chassis, removing a joystick, and backing the trailer into the dock door. Based on all available research, I have yet to see where a driverless truck has the ability to back a trailer into a dock door as efficiently as a motorized trailer chassis.
  • One constraint of trailers is that either humans or forklifts have to physically go into the trailer to unload the products, a time-consuming and labor-intensive requirement. A motorized chassis could be created whereby the trailer floor is on a roller system. When a trailer is backed into a dock door, the roller mechanism could be engaged and the trailer would unload itself. Warehouses and other facilities would have to make adjustments to take advantage of such capability.
  • To make the chassis more maneuverable, I would create a sys- tem of tires and rollers that would allow the chassis to travel down interstates and roads with ease. I would also create an ability for the chassis to move side-to-side, backward and forward, and spin 360 degrees.
  • I also want trailers to be designed so that they can easily be removed from a chassis and stacked in a trailer yard, similar to the method for stacking cargo containers.

Some readers will be concerned about the requirements to power a chassis. A chassis could be powered by a diesel or electric motor. Some readers will be concerned about the stability of a trailer being moved on a chassis. Widening the chassis would provide the required stability.

I am not criticizing driverless truck proponents, but I am challenging them to consider a more innovative alternative.