NYT ponders future of truck stops with the rise of autonomous trucking

·2-min read

The New York Times ran a piece on the changes coming for truckers and the trucking industry. The through-line seems to be that as autonomous trucks reshape how cargo gets from one place to another, "the support system that serves [truckers] is at risk of disappearing," referring to the variously excellent or miserable truck stops set like waypoints on the U.S. highway system. The article says there are 550,000 over-the-road truckers and touches on a number of other troubles they face as well — complicated driving regulations, punishing hours, expensive food on the road, and the egregious difficulty of finding a place to park. That's where the piece is on the most solid ground. As for autonomous trucking, yes, it's coming, but as with autonomous cars, the mass adoption of self-driving trucks needs decades to overcome issues like geography, weather, and human nature.

The thinned-out and empty shelves in nearly every kind of store make the current global situation the perfect catalyst for pushing development of self-driving trucks. And there are already driverless big rigs making runs in the South, where long, mostly straight sections of highway ease the challenge for tractors the same way they do for cars. But truckers don't make their money on the highway, they make their money getting the load from the highway off-ramp to the warehouse without clobbering cars and infrastructure on roads designed to accommodate much smaller vehicles. (That's ideal world; doesn't always work out that way.) This is why it will take so long for the industry to replace truck drivers with driverless trucks.

A self-driving car that needs to back up or pull over can do so almost anywhere. The options for a 73-foot-long, 8.5-foot-wide tractor-trailer are infinitesimally smaller and the penalty for mistakes is magnificently larger, which is why drivers do a ton of planning to avoid chancy situations. Simply avoiding other less-than-focused drivers on the road is difficult enough in a car. Every over-the-road driver spends an inordinate amount of their shift making sure they don't kill scores of car drivers who don't realize a loaded rig needs about 600 feet to come to a stop from 65 miles per hour.

Again, self-driving over-the-road trucks are coming, and the sooner the better. They can help alleviate the shortage of somewhere around 60,000 OTR drivers the industry faces, and help get those shelves restocked. I don't think that support system — Pilot, Loves, T/A Travel Centers and the like — are going anywhere, either. Truck stops figured out a while ago that their size, breadth of offerings, and cheap gas appeal to light-duty-vehicle drivers as well. And self-driving trucks still need fuel, too, as well as someone to pump it.

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