Self-driving trucks are here. Are they hauling climate benefits?

By Mike Lee | 05/03/2024 06:44 AM EDT

In making the case for autonomous trucking, the industry says its vehicles can cut emissions by reducing fuel use.

Automated trucks at Kodiak Robotics’ operation in Dallas, Texas.

Automated trucks at Kodiak Robotics' operation in Dallas. Mike Lee/POLITICO’s E&E News

Self-driving trucks represent the future of freight transportation, advocates say. And to help ensure there is a future — at least for humanity — they argue that autonomous trucks can help fight climate change by reducing fuel consumption.

A new estimate, funded by one of the biggest players in the autonomous trucking sector, says self-driving trucks could cut fuel use 13 percent to 32 percent compared with standard diesel trucks. The findings come amid a broader campaign to build support among regulators and Congress for the technology, which backers say is getting close to reality.

The potential payoff is huge — trucking is a $1 trillion business in the U.S. alone, according to Aurora Innovation, the company that paid for the fuel-efficiency research. For freight carriers, autonomous trucking offers the promise of bigger profit margins because they won’t have to pay human drivers.


Aurora and like-minded companies such as Kodiak Robotics Inc. and Gatik AI have tested self-driving trucks for more than a year. With a safety driver behind the wheel, autonomous trucks have run routes in and around Dallas, and between points as distant as Houston, Atlanta and El Paso.

All three companies say they plan to start making deliveries in fully autonomous trucks without a human driver sometime this year. Most states already allow self-driving trucks, either explicitly or implicitly, according to Aurora.

“As autonomous trucks make hauling freight safer, we have a responsibility to make logistics more sustainable as well,” said Garrett Bray, a product director at Aurora who wrote the paper. “Self-driving technology can fight climate change by increasing energy efficiency and reducing emissions in the supply chain.”

Test drive of Kodiak Robotics self-driving tractor-trailer

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Transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gas pollution in the U.S., and trucking makes up about a fourth of the transportation industry’s emissions.

Already, there are efforts to electrify the trucking industry — with or without drivers. But the AV industry says it can make a significant dent in emissions from diesel-powered trucks, according to the industry-funded report.

The biggest improvement would come from running trucks at lower speeds, the paper said.

Typically, trucks have to stick to a precise schedule because drivers can work only a limited number of hours before federal regulations require them to take a rest break. A self-driving truck can lumber along at a lower speed, and still reach its destination faster by skipping the breaks.

Self-driving trucks also won’t have to idle as much when they’re stopped, since they don’t require an air-conditioned cab. Likewise, they don’t rack up “deadhead miles” returning home at the end of a shift, and they don’t have to detour for bathroom breaks or food.

Some of the fuel savings will be offset by the power needed to run the autonomous system’s sensors and computers. And the sensors, which are mounted on the outside of the truck, will create more aerodynamic drag.

But the paper estimated those drawbacks will be small, compared with the overall fuel savings.

The report, which wasn’t peer-reviewed, builds on previous industry estimates that say self-driving trucks could cut emissions by 10 percent.

That’s been one of the industry’s selling points as it makes its case to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the industry, is preparing to introduce a regulation on self-driving trucks, which is being reviewed by the White House Office of Management and Budget. The agency has been gathering information on automated trucks for more than five years, through a listening session and two notices of proposed rulemaking.

Through it all, industry advocates have attested to their safety — and their potential to cut planet-warming pollution.

Study after study demonstrates AVs improve roadway safety,” Jeff Farrah, chief executive of the Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association, said in an email.

“For states like California — where the transportation sector represents nearly 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions — this research demonstrates that AV trucks like Aurora’s can play a pivotal role in reducing carbon emissions.”

The fuel savings that Aurora claims are in line with what other research has shown about automation, said Raj Rajkumar, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who studies the topic.

The trucks can be programmed to accelerate and decelerate gently, and their mapping systems allow them to adjust for hills and curves ahead of time.

“You can program the AV to have basically a pretty fuel-efficient profile,” he said.

The environmental benefits create an opportunity for the federal government; it could mandate slower operating speeds when it writes future regulations on self-driving trucks, said Parth Vaishnav, a professor at the University of Michigan.

“The firms would see fuel cost reductions, they would still see an increase in productivity and there would be safety and environmental benefits,” he said. “It would be the government asking the truck operators to share some of the gains they would make from automation.”

Safety is a top concern

To be clear, the environmental benefits of autonomous trucking are tiny compared with the financial gains that trucking companies would see from running trucks without a driver at the wheel. In addition to saving the driver’s salary, the trucks could operate almost twice as many hours in a day.

But like self-driving cars, autonomous trucks are being scrutinized for their safety record — and perhaps more so because of their greater potential for harm.

The industry says self-driving trucks can operate more safely than human drivers, and it says companies have logged millions of miles without the high-profile mistakes and public anger that have accompanied the rollout of self-driving passenger cars.

“We are well aware of the microscope we operate under,” said Dan Goff, director of external affairs at Kodiak.

Still, highway safety groups and unions have been pressing the FMCSA to move carefully.

So far, most autonomous vehicles on the road have been passenger cars, traveling at relatively slow speeds on city streets.

Long-distance trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds, roughly 20 times larger than a typical car, and move at speeds up to 75 mph on some rural roads. There haven’t been any serious crashes involving automated trucks, but the consequences could be tragic, said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

The group is pushing for FMCSA to hold off allowing self-driving trucks until the technology is proven, and until the federal agency can write rules for the new technology. To date, most of the research about self-driving trucks has been conducted by the industry.

“Our organization is not comforted by the fact that these companies are saying that they’re going to be safe and improve efficiency or the environment,” Chase said.

Unions including the Teamsters and AFL-CIO have fought against self-driving trucks, saying they’re unsafe and would put drivers out of work. The Teamsters say autonomous trucks shouldn’t be sold until safety standards are in place, and they argue there must be a requirement to keep a human driver in the cab.

“AV companies haven’t demonstrated to the general public that they’re anywhere close to having a viable product that’s anywhere close to being as good as a professionally trained human operator,” Matthew McQuaid, a Teamsters spokesman, said in an email. “If these companies can’t do that, fully driverless trucks shouldn’t be allowed on public roads. Full stop.”

The Teamsters pushed for a bill in California last year that would’ve required a licensed commercial driver in self-driving trucks, but Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed it.

The trucks use lidar and other sensors that can detect problems farther away than a human driver typically can. Their driving systems, powered by artificial intelligence, can pick up lessons that might take a human driver decades to learn, and also share real-time information among trucks in the same fleet about road conditions or obstacles.

So far, the trucks have been used only in preset “operational design domains” — meaning routes the companies have previously mapped. The trucks are typically monitored from a control room, where the company staff can track each vehicle and intervene if there’s an emergency.

Another selling point is that self-driving systems are programmed to drive conservatively.

On a recent visit, Kodiak took a guest on a test drive on some of the busiest highways in Dallas. The truck had a safety driver at the wheel, but he never touched the controls as the truck pulled out of the company’s lot, merged onto a highway and negotiated Dallas traffic.

Faced with drivers weaving in and out of lanes, the truck simply slowed down. When it encountered a broken-down vehicle on an access road, it pulled to one side. That sort of driving is not only safer, it’s more fuel-efficient and it creates less wear and tear on the truck, Kodiak said.

Gatik, which specializes in “middle-mile” trucking between warehouses and grocery stores, said automation allows its trucks to avoid trouble spots: school zones, hospitals, downtown areas.

“If the route takes seven minutes longer because that’s the safest route, a bag of groceries won’t complain about the extra seven minutes,” Rich Steiner, Gatik’s vice president of government relations, said in an interview.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.