A number of companies are developing automation technologies that promise to lower costs, reduce accidents, and improve overall efficiency for the trucking industry by allowing drivers to make longer trips that include periods of rest.
In Europe and the U.S., Volvo, Daimler, Uber, and others are testing trucks capable of driving themselves under expert supervision. But several Chinese-based companies are working on automated trucks, and lenient regulations as well as a desire to overhaul the country’s chaotic trucking industry may smooth the way for the technology’s introduction. This could provide a handy edge in the race to develop a lucrative new way of hauling goods.
Intercity freight transportation will be a huge market in China, says Xiaodi Hou, CTO of TuSimple, a company based in San Diego and Beijing that’s developing an automated trucking platform in partnership with a large Chinese truck maker (Hou declined to name which). He says there is effectively no restriction on testing self-driving systems in China currently, and he believes the government will be supportive because it wants to see the trucking industry improve.
Across China, around 7.2 million trucks and 16 million drivers are responsible for intercity transportation of goods, according to figures provided by TuSimple. This industry is worth more than $300 billion, and drivers account for around 40 percent of the costs incurred by truck companies. Some long-distance trips across China require two or even three drivers to complete. Autonomy would allow a single driver to sleep during long highway stretches.
The truck freight industry in the U.S. is even bigger, valued at around $700 billion. Uber, which is also developing automated taxis in Pittsburgh, has moved quickly to create self-driving trucks after acquiring a startup called Otto in August this year
China’s auto regulator said in July that it was drafting rules regarding automated vehicles, and asked that companies limit their testing until they are released. However, Hou, Ng, and others believe the government will ultimately be relaxed about testing and commercialization of self-driving trucks.