Self-driving trucks may be coming to a highway near you

Trucking holds a special importance in the American economy. More than two-thirds of the nation's freight--some 10.5 billion tons of goods--is transported by truck, a feat that requires 3.5 million drivers and nearly as many heavy-class trucks. In 29 states, truck driving is the most common job.

But that might not be the case for long, as the potential savings from automating trucks are too tempting for the industry to ignore.

Trucking companies lose a whopping $49.6 billion annually due to congestion, according to the American Trucking Association. Moreover, driver error is at least partly to blame in about 90 percent of the more than 4,000 deaths and 10,000 injuries attributed to trucks and buses every year. There also is a driver shortage currently estimated by the ATA at 50,000 positions. In less than a decade, the trade group expects nearly 900,000 will be needed.

"Autonomous vehicle technology is real, folks, and it's here whether we like it or not," said ATA President and Chief Executive Officer Chris Spear in his 2016 "State of the Industry" speech before the trade association's annual conference. "This technology has the potential to get trucks moving, reduce fuel burn and emissions and increase miles driven -- all measurable returns to drivers."

Truck manufacturer Peterbilt, which is part of PACCAR (PCAR), and Daimler's Freightliner are among the makers of 18-wheel tractor-trailers that are developing autonomous technology. Earlier this summer, Peterbilt agreed to build test trucks using the technology developed by tech startup Embark. Freightliner Inspiration, the first licensed autonomous commercial truck to operate on an open public highway in the United States, made its debut a few years ago at the Hoover Dam.

Cummins, which has been synonymous with diesel engines for nearly a century, last week unveiled an electric semi, a month ahead of Tesla's (TSLA) plans to do introduce a similar vehicle. Elon Musk's company is engaged in a high-stakes battle with Alphabet (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL), among others, over self-driving technology.

"You have prototypes out there that are pushing the envelope," he said. "Essentially, the technology that drives the Tesla applies to any other vehicle. It's just trucks are a lot more complicated because they have trailers and more axles and have a lot more weight."

Not surprisingly, the Teamsters Union, which represents about 600,000 commercial truck drivers, is leery of self-driving technology and is calling for comprehensive federal rules regarding autonomous vehicles, including strong minimum safety standards. 

The union also argues that raising wages for truckers, who earn a median salary of $41,000 a year, would go a long way toward solving the labor shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 18 percent of workers in the transportation and warehousing industries are represented by unions. About a quarter of truckers are not employees at all, but independent contractors.

"We have concerns about the technology and our number one priority  ... as a union is the safety of our members and the driving public," said Kara Deniz, a Teamsters spokeswoman. "Our position is there needs to be a full understanding of what the risks are and limitations as well as the potential with automated technologies."

But while the government ponders regulating the sector, money is pouring in--and fights are breaking out. Last year, Uber acquired start-up Otto for $680 million. Otto, whose technology powered the first commercial delivery by an autonomous truck, was founded by a former Google employee. Google's parent company, Alphabet -- which is also developing self-driving technology--is now suing Uber, alleging trade secrets were stolen. (The former Googler, Anthony Levandowski, has since been fired.) 

As with autonomous cars, experts say trucks able to operate without any human intervention at all are years away. But technologies that combine automation with human drivers are all around. The human driver of the Otto-powered truck, for instance, sat in the sleeper berth at the back of the cab without touching the vehicle's controls. Though Ford (F) and Domino's Pizza (DPZ) are testing driverless cars to make pizza deliveries in the pizza chain's Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters, the Ford Fusions that will deliver them will be manually driven by a Ford safety engineer and staffed with researchers.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.