Morgan Stanley
  • Ideas
  • Oct 24, 2018

Keep on Trucking

Autonomous technology takes the wheel.

The technology behind autonomous cars is poised to radically alter the freight industry. 

Fleets of self-driving trucks could become a common sight on our roadways, with the emergent technology of autonomous vehicles edging into the world of big-rigs and long hauls.

The driverless road giants would, of course, be much less expensive to operate than trucks driven by humans. Beyond that, however, the network effects could also be a huge advantage, with shippers expected to gravitate toward the fleet with the largest, safest trucking network.

Morgan Stanley made the call back in 2013, estimating that the future adoption of autonomous freight vehicles could lead to annual savings of $168 billion for the logistics transport industryi. The savings are expected to come from labour ($70 billion), fuel efficiency ($35 billion), productivity ($27 billion) and accident savings ($36 billion), before including any estimates from non-truck freight modes like air and rail.

Long-haul freight delivery is one of the most obvious and compelling areas for the application of autonomous and semi-autonomous driving technology.

– Morgan Stanley Research.    

Trucks are leading the driverless convoy

Driverless trucks are already being utilised across the world in select non-passenger environments. Examples include military truck convoys in war zones, drone military aircraft and automated warehousing operations. Closer to home, Western Australian mining companies have experienced a significant improvement in performance after introducing a fleet of autonomous dump trucks.

Public acceptance of driverless technology is higher within such environments, where there is no obvious risk to human life. This has made it possible for autonomous vehicles to be introduced more rapidly into the freight and transport sector.

Morgan Stanley predicted this difference across freight environments in a research report that stated:  “We understand the excitement about the idea that everyone will have their own autonomous chauffeur someday, but we believe that freight companies are far more likely to embrace, refine, and apply autonomous technology in ways that will lead the passenger market. Where freight and passenger traffic interact, safety hurdles will remain high.”

Advocates of driverless trucking are particularly enthusiastic about the role it could play in long-haul freight delivery. This is because the passage of an interstate highway is easier to navigate than local and urban driving environments, which are more complex and require frequent decision-making. The long stretches of road that constitute modern highways - and their relative fluidity in terms of traffic flow - are fundamentally more compatible with autonomous freight technologies. 

Fuelling an alternative to fatigue fatalities

The real financial benefits for freight carriers are predicted to come from driverless fleet productivity. The possible savings generated by a shift to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week scheduling for costly freight assets represents a clear business advantage.

It also presents an opportunity to make our roads safer, and even save lives.

In 2017 the NSW Police Force conducted a nationwide audit of a transport company. The audit followed a road accident in which a car collided with one of the company's B-doubles, leading to the death of two children. Findings revealed issues with insecure loads and driver fatigueii.

The audit results parallel Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) statistics on fatal heavy vehicle crashes in Australia. BITRE findings released in November 2017 showed there were 121 deaths from 105 crashes involving articulated trucks and 81 deaths from 76 crashes involving heavy rigid trucks during the 12 months to the end of September 2017. The number of fatal crashes involving articulated trucks represented an increase of 9.4 per cent compared with the corresponding period one year earlieriii.

Autonomous trucks could potentially eliminate human error and negate driver fatigue, eradicating the risk posed to the public by cognitive impairment resulting either directly or indirectly from this driver fatigue.


For more information on investment opportunities in innovative technologies, speak to your Morgan Stanley financial adviser.


i ‘Autonomous Cars: Self-Driving the New Auto Industry Paradigm.’ Ravi Shanker, Adam Jonas, Scott Devitt, Katy Huberty, Simon Flannery, William Greene, Benjamin Swinburne, Gregory Locraft,  Adam Wood, Keith Weiss,  Joseph Moore, Andrew Schenker, Paresh Jain, Yejay Ying, Shinji Kakiuchi, Ryosuke Hoshino,  Andrew Humphrey. Morgan Stanley. November, 2013.

ii ‘Driver fatigue issues found during audit of truck company involved in fatal crash near Dubbo.’ Kathleen Ferguson. ABC News. May, 2017.

iii ‘Fatal Heavy Vehicle Crashes Australia - Quarterly Bulletin: September Quarter.’ The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE). November, 2017.