As Online Shopping Booms, Who’s Going to Make All Those Deliveries?

Nearly half of all product searches now begin on Amazon, which currently owns $129 billion of e-commerce gross merchandise value—a 28% share of the market, according to Mary Meeker’s latest Internet Trends report.

Over the next decade, in-home grocery delivery alone could grow five-fold and is predicted to reach $100 billion in consumer sales by 2025, capturing 20% of the total grocery retail market, according to study by the Food Marketing Institute conducted by Nielsen.

And “if you’re at all interested in the trucking industry, these numbers should be alarming,” said Jack Roberts, journalist, futurist and senior editor of Heavy Duty Trucking magazine, during a Motor Carrier Insurance Education Foundation webinar late last year. “We do not have the capacity, the vehicles or the drivers to meet that demand.”

The webinar, Technology, Disruption & the Future of Transportation, covered groundbreaking technological trends in the trucking industry, from the latest equipment and systems to telematics and autonomous vehicles.

“We know with absolute certainty that Amazon is going to increase delivering goods to homes,” Roberts said. “That, to me, is the biggest trend driving the need or desire for autonomous trucks today.”

But Roberts noted that he sometimes struggles to convey that important point to truck drivers and fleet managers: that it’s not all a bunch of hype, that trucking technology developments aren’t happening in a vacuum.

“There are real economic forces pushing the development of this technology, because how are we going to deal with an exponential uptick in home delivery over the next three to five years?” Roberts pointed out. “That’s a hurdle that needs to be solved.”

Increasingly, Roberts expects more autonomous trucks to step in and fill delivery gaps—“not necessarily the big 18-wheelers” like the famous Freightliner Autonomous Truck, which Roberts has personally driven, “but smaller local delivery trucks,” he said.

In fact, Roberts pointed out that trucking is likely to be the leading transportation sector when it comes to autonomous vehicles. “That’s different for trucking, which usually follows automotive leads,” he said. “But there are some very real productivity and efficiency gains that autonomous technology could deliver to the trucking industry.”

Consider truck platooning, for example—a trend Roberts believes will be deployed first in “the Nebraskas and Kansases of the world,” where routes tend to be long, flat and straight. Although truck platooning has been “mostly illegal” in the past, Roberts said, “it’s getting a second look now, because autonomous systems now allow tractor trailers to drive at much closer following distances much more safely.”

The result, Roberts explained, is significant fuel savings: The lead truck can achieve a 5% boost in fuel economy, the second truck 7% and the trailing truck as much as 13-15%. “These are serious, serious numbers if you’re on a truck fleet,” Roberts pointed out. “Fleet managers will do just about anything to get a couple points of a cent a mile when they’re driving down the road.”

Roberts also expects self-upgrading powertrains to become a reality very soon: “powertrains that can upgrade themselves while the vehicle is driving,” he explained. “Say you’re heading up into the mountains and you need a little more horsepower. If you’ve got your truck geofenced, maybe it automatically happens that whenever you pass into mountainous terrain, you get more torque, and then the powertrain can reconfigure itself for better fuel economy when you get out of there.”

For the autonomous trucks already in operation today, “the technology works,” Roberts said. “It doesn’t work perfectly, but it certainly works well enough to where they’re going to be able to get most of the bugs out and we should see some real-world deployment of autonomous trucks in the next five years.”

What other trends will drive the future of the trucking industry? Keep an eye on and upcoming editions of the Markets Pulse e-newsletter to find out.

If you want to know more about insuring motor carriers, visit the Motor Carrier Insurance Education Foundation online and take a test drive.

Jacquelyn Connelly is IA senior editor.