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Drivers (Still) Wanted: Uber Cancels Autonomous Truck Program

The driver shortage crisis just got a little bit worse.

Uber announced last month that its Advanced Technologies Group will stop development of self-driving trucks and instead focus its efforts on self-driving cars. Truck drivers are already in woefully short supply, and the prospect of trucks that drive themselves seemed to offer the potential for a significant reduction in driver demand. But, with one of the more high-profile proponents of purely autonomous trucks pulling out, this solution is perhaps not as close as we hoped.

Although other companies such as Volvo, Daimler and Tesla continue to pursue the idea of autonomous trucks, these more conventional truck manufacturers are still struggling to find a way – as Uber aimed to – of removing the need for any human intervention whatsoever behind the wheel.

The truck driver shortage isn’t going away

Meanwhile, statistics on the developing driver shortage continue to get scarier. Knock-on effects include increasing freight costs, higher retail prices, and late deliveries that leave store shelves empty.

Raising wages hasn’t helped. The average annual pay is $42,000 — solidly in the middle of the blue-collar wage range — but in some markets where demand is highest, it’s reached $100,000. Signing bonuses can reach five figures. Still, the problem remains.

Congress is considering a new piece of legislation that would lower the age for commercial drivers crossing state lines from 21 to 18. But the average age of a US truck driver is already 47 and rising. Young people, whether over 18 or over 21, simply don’t find truck driving to be an attractive career.

Some see an opportunity in attracting “non-traditional” drivers, such as women and minorities, but with an average annual turnover close to 100%, there’s still a massive problem with retaining anyone who gets behind the wheel.

A different approach to the problem

What if the issue wasn’t too few drivers, so much as too much inefficiency in the routes they drive? While it might not account for the entire problem, there’s a pressing need to make the most out of every freight-mile driven and every driver-hour available. Route optimization software, which minimizes the time taken to complete each delivery and maximizes the number of hours a driver can spend delivering goods, is an increasingly essential tool in the battle to combat the driver shortage.

The inefficiencies are real. According to the National Private Truck Council, more than a quarter of US trucks are driving around empty. Even when they’re not empty, truck trailers are 36 percent under-utilized, according to Department of Transport statistics quoted by Homayoun Taherian of Cnergistics.

Route optimization software can save fleet operators 10-30 percent of delivery costs. It does so by applying smart algorithms to deliver routes in the least amount of time and miles. That in turn:

  • Reduces hours to plan routes
  • Cuts fuel and equipment costs
  • Allows the most efficient use of trucks and drivers

In essence, you’re solving the age-old problem of figuring out how to avoid wasted miles and driver-hours that come when drivers’ routes cross each other needlessly, or trucks drive around half-full.

Route optimization software also allows you to take a strategic, big-picture view of how to make the most of your assets (including drivers), and play out any number of what-if scenarios. Because you can determine the impact of any number of proposed changes before you actually execute them, your opportunities to enhance efficiency become enormous. You can experiment with reforming and improving your delivery operations to maximize driver usage, while incurring minimal risk.

Humans vs computers

The simple fact is, it’s impossible for a human brain to fully optimize fleet performance using traditional routing and scheduling methods – usually involving a planner deploying unsophisticated tools such as Excel spreadsheets in an attempt to do the work of a powerful computer. It’s time to consider putting that computing power to work for you to drive those inefficiencies out of your delivery operations, by deploying route optimization software.

Uber’s cancellation of its autonomous truck program is just one more sign that self-driving trucks are not a near-term solution to the driver shortage. But for businesses that continue to manually plan delivery fleet routes, there is a solution out there that can bring immediate benefits – not by finding drivers, but by creating routes so efficient that you need fewer trucks and drivers to satisfy all customer delivery requirements.

It’s not autonomous trucks; it’s automated routing. And it’s a smart play for fleet operators looking to make the most of their equipment and people.

Advanced route optimization software makes truck deliveries more efficient, and squeezes every last drop out of the hours available for each driver. By automatically figuring out the most efficient, quickest way to route trucks, this technology could alleviate the need for those ever-elusive self-driving trucks.

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