Driver Shortage Pushes Autonomous Trucking Closer to Reality

Unmanned trucks are hitting the streets.

Autonomous trucking startup TuSimple completed its first run on open public roads without a human in the vehicle, reported TechCrunch (Dec. 29).

The autonomous driving system navigated 100% of the 80-mile run along surface streets and highways in Arizona. The one-hour and 20-minute drive along major freight route I-10 marked a major milestone for the company which aims to scale its technology into purpose-built trucks by 2024, according to CEO Cheng Lu.

Over a year and a half, TuSimple performed 1,800 runs on the same stretch of road and plans to continue testing the driver-out program this year. The company is currently operating retrofitted base trucks from Navistar, but it plans to jointly develop semi trucks specifically designed for autonomous operations that it can sell to third parties.

DHL Supply Chain has already reserved 100 of these autonomous trucks to integrate into its operations, brining TuSimple’s total reservations order to 6,875 trucks.


The developments come as the nation faces an ongoing truck driver shortage.

“On the one hand, the demand for truck drivers and trucks continues to increase with e-commerce and the on-demand economy, but the supply side of things isn’t looking pretty,” Lu told TechCrunch.  “We have a driver shortage, significant driver turnover, safety costs are getting higher and of course, environmental concerns. All these things are leading to a bottleneck of the supply chain.”

Currently, the U.S. is facing a shortage of more than 80,000 truck drivers, according to an estimate from the American Trucking Associations (ATA). The ATA also estimated that around 72% of America’s freight transport moves by trucks, showing how dependent consumers are on drivers, reported Vox (Jan. 2).

Regions around the world are also experiencing driver shortages. The International Road Transport Union documented shortages in a survey of 800 transport companies in more than 20 counties, with about 20% of positions going unfilled in Eurasia last year.


TuSimple isn’t the only company to achieve driver-out operations. For example, Waymo, the autonomous driving arm of Alphabet, has been running driverless robotaxi operations in Phoenix since October of 2020.

In other news:

  • A major trial of driverless cars on public roads will begin in the U.K.’s Milton Keynes later this month, reported BBC (Jan. 4). The Fetch car system will allow people to order a car through an app and the car, which is remotely controlled by an operator, will then be delivered to them.
  • Aurora’s self-driving trucks are hauling goods for Uber Freight customers in Texas as part of a multiphase commercial pilot that aims to more closely integrate the two companies, reported TechCrunch (Dec. 15).
  • Meanwhile, the autonomous vehicle industry is lobbying federal safety regulators to limit the amount of data companies must report every time their cars crash, reported Los Angeles Times (Dec. 31). The companies argue that the current requirements get in the way of innovation that will benefit the public.