Elon Musk’s Autonomous Truck: Will It Disrupt the Transport Sector?

In one of the biggest technology news announcements of the year, innovative multibillionaire Elon Musk recently announced that his company Tesla, best-known for electronic cars, is planning to roll out self-driving trucks in 2019.

Disrupting the Sector?

Musk is known for creative attempts to disrupt the transportation sector, with battery-operated cars, plans for a space-age superfast tunnel between New York and Washington, and now plans for trucks that would be both battery operated and without drivers.

Perhaps one of the most innovative features of Musk’s plans, in fact, is that his business strategy often combines traditionally low-tech fields, such as boring tunnels and designing semi trucks, with innovative and high-tech methods.

But can he pull off the ambitious plans for a self-driving semi truck between now and 2019? Musk has a history of rollout or breakthrough announcements that are sometimes followed by delays.

Some people are skeptical, pointing out that self-driving cars have not been approved by regulatory authorities in any state or by any Federal body — and self-driving cars have been talked about much longer than self-driving semi trucks. Several Federal authorities must approve interstate trucking.

Skeptics also point out that the battery required for a 500-mile haul, the target of the Tesla semi truck, would likely be very large and very expensive. It may be expensive enough to make traditional diesel-fuel trucks more cost effective, at least until the costs could be brought down. Diesel trucks cost around $120,000, and the battery required for the Tesla semi truck may cost more.

The batteries need chargers, of course, which are also in the process of development.

Self-driving electric trucks could disrupt the trucking industry, with beneficial effects on productivity, costs, and the environment.

Huge Potential Benefits

Even if one grants the skeptic’s points, it’s highly impressive that development of an autonomous battery-powered truck has progressed to the point that at least two prototypes have been built. They ferried Musk to the point where he made the announcement.

Self-driving trucks have the potential to benefit the trucking industry, the environment, and businesses and consumers.

For the trucking industry, they could eventually be cost-effective and productive choices. Forbes quoted Musk as indicating that the Tesla truck would cost around $1.26 per mile to operate, versus the current industry standard of $1.51. They could also be more productive. A self-driving truck could theoretically operate continuously (except for charging and maintenance). It could eliminate the driver, and thus eliminate the time spent on sleep and food.

Self-driving vehicles can, theoretically, be much safer than vehicles currently on the road. Computers can eliminate driver error. The elimination of the driver means that factors leading to accidents, such as fatigue or drug or alcohol impairment, would also be eliminated. Autonomous vehicles can be programmed to obey safety rules and make correct decisions.

A battery-powered truck would not use fossil fuel. That’s potentially a big win for the environment. Inc. notes that 6% of carbon emissions currently come from trucks.

Trucks carry goods throughout the United States. They are vital links in international shipping as well, as they pick up goods at ports. If they become more cost-effective and productive, it could lead to reduced cost of goods for businesses and consumers.

Will Elon Musk’s semi roll out on schedule? It remains to be seen, as regulatory authorities have not ruled on its legality yet. But the fact that the prototype exists is good news, as self-driving drugs could disrupt the industry positively, by reducing costs, increasing productivity, enhancing safety, lessening carbon emissions, and making goods more affordable.