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The Future of Trucking: Driverless Semi-Trucks, Electric Trucks, & More

June 26th, 2024

Steve Psyck

Steve Psyck

As the director of equipment sales and procurement at ATS, Steve is responsible for purchasing new equipment in order to keep the ATS fleet in line with — and oftentimes ahead of — federal fuel and safety regulations. His team is also responsible for selling equipment that is being retired from the ATS fleet. Steve has been with ATS for three decades.

Nervous about what’s in store for the trucking industry? Wondering if you’re going to lose your job as a truck driver? 

With artificial intelligence (AI) running rampant, electric vehicles becoming more popular, and emissions regulations getting stricter every three years the trucking industry is poised to look very different inside the next decade.

As the trucking industry races into the future, changes like the shift from manual to automatic transmissions, the arrival of autonomous technology, and the rise of electric semi-trucks can understandably stir worries and uncertainties among drivers like you. 

While this technology is certainly new, Anderson Trucking Service (ATS) is no stranger to innovation. In fact, it’s one of our core values. Throughout our nearly seven decades in the transportation industry, we’ve embraced new technology to continue to advance our fleet and our business. 

We’re here to provide clarity and a level of support during these transformative times.

In this insightful guide, we delve deep into the core shifts shaping the future of trucking, many of which are sparked by emerging technology and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations designed to cut emissions:

Our goal is to empower you with the knowledge and resources needed to navigate these industry shifts confidently, ensuring that you remain at the forefront of a thriving and evolving trucking landscape.

The Move from Manual to Automatic Transmissions

The shift from manual transmissions to automatic transmissions is nothing new, so it probably won’t be news to you that finding a new semi-truck with a manual transmission will be exceedingly difficult in the coming years. 

The move originates from EPA emissions controls and the desire to create a greener footprint. To meet EPA regulations, all systems on a semi-truck have to be optimized. 

The EPA regularly sets strict emissions standards for on-highway diesel trucks to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) are then required to make adjustments to ensure heavy-duty trucks are compliant with the new regulations. 

Holding a gear and running at higher RPMs in a semi-truck or automobile produces more emissions. Several EPA emissions cycles ago, to cut emissions further, a concept called “downspeeding” was introduced. It allows semi-trucks to run at lower RPMs while maintaining highway speeds and near-peak torque.

Downspeeding with automatic transmissions lowers emissions and consumes less fuel.

To get this to work, the transmission has to lead the engine and tell it what to do. Traditionally (with a manual transmission), it’s always been the opposite, with the engine responding to driver input. 

Downspeeding isn’t as easy nor as consistent with a manual transmission, which is where the automatic transmission comes in. 

Another feature that isn’t available with a manual transmission is eCoast. During eCoast, the power to the driveline is disengaged. The engine goes to neutral. Fuel flow is minimalized because it’s not needed to fuel propulsion. This might happen when you’re going downhill and can take advantage of gravity's pull.   

Long-haul drivers use eCoast often throughout their days because of all the small terrain hills they traverse.

When you ask for better fuel efficiency and lower emissions, it comes at the cost of lesser performance. Will you be the first one up the hill? Probably not. However, you will get there and you’ll do so using less fuel and with a cleaner footprint.   

(It’s notable to mention that the torque curve is ramped up, so even though you’re getting lower RPMs when downspeeding, the torque is at a peak level.)

It’s no longer standard to get a manual transmission on a heavy-duty semi-tractor. It’s still an option, sure, but fewer are being made. 

OEMs need to meet a minimum score or target for the total emissions of their entire product line. If they sell too many poorly-performing emissions vehicles at the start of the year, by the end of the year they’ll stop offering them so they can still meet their annual target.

This is bad news if you prefer a manual transmission but good news if you like automatics and fewer emissions. 

Autonomous, Driverless Vehicles 

As technology advances, autonomous vehicles (or driverless vehicles) are becoming more prevalent. While you perhaps occasionally spotted a driverless Uber on the road in their test phase a few years ago, the technology has advanced so far that it’s being brought to heavy-duty vehicles (like Class 8 semi-tractors).

You might be wondering how we got here. Since the early 2000s, the trucking industry has been seeing the development of tools designed to measure the road. For example, cameras and sensors measure distance and sense objects around the vehicle. 

These tools work together and talk to the truck to adjust the steering, position the vehicle between the center and fog lines, slow the vehicle, and keep an appropriate following distance — among other tasks. We can see when someone is in our blind spot. We’re alerted when we’re veering off the road or following too closely. Our steering is assisted. 

These tools help keep us safer on the road. 

All of this technology has come to the trucking industry, where it continues to be perfected. Notably, truck makers are partnering with automated driving technology developers to be on the cutting edge of hub-to-hub autonomous Class 8 trucks.

And, we’re already seeing autonomous trucks on the road. The use cases are limited, but we’re seeing driverless vehicles used in low-impact areas (away from the general public) like the mining, quarrying, and industrial material handling industries. In these industries, driverless heavy-duty vehicles provide a safer solution in a dangerous industry. They also cut emissions. 

These autonomous transport systems can fit in confined areas and make the trip to and from mines and quarries transporting supplies. Specifically, autonomous transport solutions work best in repetitive flows in confined and controlled areas to optimize processes. 

Another place we’re seeing autonomous vehicles is in ports and distribution centers. A vehicle can move to grab and reposition a trailer to a specific spot. 

We’re seeing some action hub-to-hub (on the highways) but this is very limited to short, repetitive trips from origin to destination. For example, as early as 2016, a self-driving truck was used by Anheuser-Busch to transport cans of Budweiser from Fort Collins, Colorado 120 miles south to Colorado Springs. There was no need for human intervention, but a driver was in the cab and the tractor-trailer was escorted by patrol cars and other vehicles. 

Will Autonomous Vehicles Take My Job?

We know what you’re probably wondering right now: Am I going to lose my job? Is artificial intelligence (AI) going to completely take over? While your concerns are valid, you don’t need to worry.

Ultimately, fully autonomous trucks can improve highway safety, increase efficiency, and promote driver health. They can also help solve the problem carriers face with recruiting and retaining drivers. 

However, there are some applications where we simply can’t utilize this technology today. This includes: 

  • Long-haul routes
  • Irregular routes
  • Routes that include driving on highways with construction work or unique features
  • Oversized loads

Long-haul, irregular routes across the country will be extremely difficult for self-driving vehicles to carry out. Roads with construction will be difficult to navigate, as will roads with roundabouts. A human driver can do this with some difficulty, but can a driverless vehicle? Probably not — at least, not as the technology stands today. The route from origin to destination needs to be properly and perfectly mapped.

Then, there’s also oversized freight to consider. Not only is the freight over-dimensional, which makes navigating roads more difficult, but the freight also has to be secured. Securements need to be checked regularly as the freight travels to its final destination. An autonomous vehicle can’t do that. A driver would have to be in the vehicle to carry out this task. 

It’s a very long road before we see this technology rolled out industry-wide; we likely won’t see it in the next decade. Even when we do, it’ll most likely be to local applications (repetitive local routes from A to B and back) or things like beverage delivery or recycling pickup.

Drivers in the specialized field (hauling over-dimensional, heavy freight) or driving long-haul, irregular routes will likely be the last to be affected by this technology.

Electric charging stations.

Electric Semi-Trucks 

Another result of the move to cut emissions and meet EPA regulations? Electric vehicles. And yes, they’re already coming to the trucking industry. There are fully electric semi-trucks made across brands like Freightliner, Volvo, and Tesla. 

In fact, the first Tesla was delivered at the end of 2022 after facing supply chain shortages that delayed build and delivery. Freightliner has even unveiled a driverless electric truck, the eCascadia.

Electric semi-trucks come with options for different distance capacities, including 300-mile vehicles or 500-mile vehicles. The trucks come fully loaded and can maintain highway speeds, too.

Outside of zero emissions, electric semi-trucks have additional benefits, including cost savings and quiet operations. Drivers will save thousands of dollars on fuel each year, which is easily the highest expense on the road (other than a truck payment itself). Without the need to have regular oil changes, drivers may also spend less on maintenance costs. Electric vehicles are also notably quieter. 

The battery-operated vehicles, also known as EVs (electric vehicles), unfortunately aren’t the perfect solution. They come with a lot of challenges.

The main concern is a power source. Even though you may want to buy an electric truck, you might not have a fuel station available to you to charge it. Your entire route will need to be planned not around breaks to fill up on fuel, check your securements, or check the weather, but instead on where you can stop to charge your truck. For long-haulers, this may be an impractical solution. 

The move to electric vehicles presents a costly problem: Building the infrastructure for charging stations that can pull enough power to charge these massive vehicles. 

The infrastructure cost alone to electrify the trucking industry is staggering. Clean Freight Coalition estimates that it’ll cost fleets an average of $145,000 per truck. Electrifying the entire industry may come in somewhere around $1 trillion — and that’s just to build out charging stations. This presents a massive challenge. 

EVs may take around an hour or so to charge, but the amount of energy required to do so is astronomical. Trucking carriers may not be able to draw enough power from local utility companies to build a charging station — nor may they be able to afford it. This would present a problem for their fleet, which would be forced to go elsewhere to find a charging station.

The cost of ownership for an EV is also extremely high. So, while a driver might be saving on fuel costs and maintenance, they’ll be spending more to purchase the EV. Freight rates aren’t dictated by emissions, either, which can make for even more of a financial burden to some drivers.

Cost aside, electric semi-trucks may be impractical for specific applications in the trucking industry. 

For starters, the tare weight of the tractor increases because the batteries are so heavy. The battery adds literal tons to the tare weight of a comparable diesel tractor. As a result, the electric semi-truck has to sacrifice cargo weight.

The preferred route of travel for EVs isn’t always a direct path on the freeway. Interstate travel shortens your battery life. Instead, EVs prefer indirect routes littered with slower speeds and plenty of stoplights. Regular braking promotes power regeneration and therefore makes the battery last longer. 

This is neither practical — nor possible, for oversized, permitted freight — for long-haul drivers trying to use their time efficiently and arrive at their destination on time. 

EVs also perform better with a diminishing load (AKA, dropping off freight throughout the day to lower the weight of the load overall). Weight dropped off throughout the day on a shorter route with a lot of stops makes it easier for the battery to stay charged.

All things considered, EVs as they stand now will thrive more so in industries like waste management or beverage supply where they can drop weight and return to the same place to recharge each night. 

Long-haul routes, on the other hand, won’t be applicable (at least not yet). It’s simply not feasible to run 500 miles per day with the same weight available to you. All that weight can’t be carried all those miles. Drivers would need to make regular stops to charge their vehicles or risk losing power. 


Amid the discourse on electric vehicles, another solution has entered the debate: Hydrogen fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs). 

This solution is still in its infancy phase and there’s no telling when (or if) it’ll be a big player in the trucking industry, but there are some promising benefits. 

For starters, the batteries in FCEVs are much smaller than those in traditional electric vehicles. The hydrogen fuel cell and stored hydrogen power the truck. Hydrogen burns cleanly, which means this is a zero-carbon emissions solution. It takes about as much time to refuel a hydrogen vehicle as it does to fill a diesel one and the operation range is comparable.

Keep a lookout for new developments in the coming years.

Female truck driver shown in side mirror.

Drive the Future

The future of trucking can seem daunting. With the shift to automatic transmissions, the rise of autonomous vehicles, and the introduction of electric semi-trucks, it’s normal to feel a little worried. However, these changes also present exciting opportunities for growth and innovation in the industry.

Understanding the shifts in the industry is crucial for staying ahead. By familiarizing yourself with the benefits of automatic transmissions, the potential of autonomous technology, and the practicalities of electric semi-trucks, you can position yourself for success in this new era of trucking.

Remember, while the road ahead may bring new challenges, it also brings new possibilities. Autonomous trucks, for instance, are likely to complement rather than replace the critical roles that drivers like you play, especially in long-haul and irregular routes where human expertise is indispensable. 

Stay informed, stay adaptable, and continue to hone your skills. The trucking industry’s landscape might be changing, but the need for skilled, knowledgeable drivers remains constant. 

At ATS, we have a long-standing tradition of embracing change and leveraging new technologies to enhance our fleet and operations. This commitment to innovation has allowed us to remain at the forefront of the industry for nearly seven decades. As we navigate these transformative times, we’re dedicated to supporting you every step of the way.

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