By now we’ve all heard the robots are coming.
Pieces of autonomous technology can already be found in cars today and some analysts predict we could see semi-autonomous trucks on the road within a few years.
But if you ask any mover, moving household goods is not the same as shipping pallets of toilet paper or delivering Amazon Prime boxes.
Moving a person’s home is a hands-on process requiring more than a robot being able to cruise down the highway and pull up to a loading dock.
The moving industry presents its own set of unique challenges and driverless trucks will affect moving companies in ways regular freight companies won’t be.
Even though we’re likely decades away from fully autonomous vehicles going mainstream, it’s always interesting to think about what the future may hold.
Here are a few predictions (and other ramblings) on how robot trucks will reshape the moving industry.
No more driver shortage
Yeah, this one is pretty obvious.
The current driver shortage is a huge headache for anyone in trucking and especially moving companies.
Long-haul drivers are the hardest type to find.
The long periods away from family and difficult truck-stop to truck-stop lifestyle make interstate driving very unappealing.
Add lifting furniture and stressed customers on top and you can see why moving companies struggle to find good drivers.
It makes sense the industry will replace long-haul drivers as quickly as the technology allows. And it’s likely autonomous vehicles will first be used on highways where the driving environment is more controlled and predictable.
Local or last mile drivers, on the other hand, are a different story.
Parking at a customer’s home presents a unique set of challenges that robots won’t be capable of performing for quite some time.
Sure, IBM’s Watson can school us all in Jeopardy. But when’s the last time Watson parked 80 feet of truck without touching a customer’s lawn?
Local delivery will take a long time to automate, but the elimination of long-distance drivers will still have a major effect on the industry particularly when it comes to costs.
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The cost of interstate moves will go down
It’s estimated self-driving trucks will reduce shipping costs by nearly 75%.
While a large portion of that savings stems from reduced labor costs (drivers are expensive), increased efficiency will also bring costs lower.
Currently, drivers who are paid by the mile drive at the speed limit or faster to make the most of their time.
Driverless trucks will maintain an optimal fuel-efficient speed of 45 mph and be able to draft behind one another in long convoys increasing fuel economy.
Vehicle communication will improve truck routing and decrease traffic reducing fuel consumption by up to 10%.
The 11-hour driving restriction on truckers will no longer apply and trucks will run 24/7 meaning companies can ship twice as much with the same fleet.
This all begs the question, just how much can we expect to see move costs go down?
As mentioned earlier, local moves aren’t likely to be affected. Until robots are carrying couches into homes, local costs will mostly stay the same.
But long distance moves will have a major drop in hauling costs which will translate into lower quotes for customers.
If cost reduction estimates are correct, van lines currently paying roughly $2 per mile to ship cross country will see per mile costs drop to $0.50.
On a 2,500-mile shipment, that’s $3,750 in savings.
While not all of that money will get passed onto customers, a good chunk of it will.
But lower hauling costs aren’t the only benefit of driverless trucks.
Overall move quality and customer satisfaction will improve
No, customers won’t just magically be happy now because their quotes are lower (although, that won’t hurt).
Let’s think about how driverless trucks will affect the most frequent customer complaints.
Long and inaccurate delivery spreads have inspired many an angry Yelper.
Now imagine loading a trailer, hitching it to a robot tractor and immediately being able to ship it 3,000 miles non-stop.
No bathroom breaks, drive hour limits or stops to sleep.
With electrical grids and new road technologies, trucks may not even need to stop to charge.
Customers will have their items shipped cross country faster and more accurately than ever before.
And because there’s no longer a driver shortage, companies can put all their energy into recruiting and training the best local crews.
Some of the savings on hauling cost will free up margin to pay moving labor higher wages.
Moves will be packed by better trained and happier loaders and programmed robot drivers will be sure to operate the truck to minimize the chance of damage.
All of this reducing claims and making for a better overall moving experience.
The moving industry as we know it will change
The transition to autonomous trucks won’t be easy for an already cash-strapped moving industry.
As Tim Mento, VP of Corporate Development at AVL Group Inc, pointed out, “the industry will face significant barriers to entry with large upfront costs. If a standard rig costs $150k today, my bet is that driverless trucks are going to debut at a 30-50% premium.”
The moving industry is not known for trailblazing innovation and high upfront costs may mean only the largest providers will be able to take advantage of driverless tech (at least initially).
It could also make sense for van lines to partner with larger freight companies to take advantage of their infrastructure.
The savings from autonomous trucks will also be less significant early on as the technological and legislative kinks get worked out which could further delay adoption.
But the future is notoriously hard to predict.
While most of these guesses will inevitably be wrong, there is no doubt technology is going to bring major change to the business of moving over the next few decades.
How do you think driverless tech will affect the industry?