Driverless trucks and the transfer hub model

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The U.S. truck population could shrink by as much as 13% if half the freight is moved by autonomous trucks using a transfer hub model.

Stephan Keese, senior partner with Roland Berger, explained at the FTR Transportation Conference here this week, how such a model would work.

The transfer hub model consists of two yards at either end of a highway that allows autonomous trucks. They’d be complete driverless on this section of highway. Loads would be dropped in the yard and drayage trucks with a driver would finish the trip to the product’s destination.

Keese said he feels the transfer hub model using autonomous trucks will be feasible by the middle of the next decade, if fully autonomous trucks are allowed on certain highways.

“The autonomous highway segment connects two transfer hubs,” he explained, “which are big parking lots directly connected to the highway. You can run in platoon with driverless Stage 4 autonomous vehicles from one transfer hub as long as you want to go, only restricted by refueling needs.”

All that’s needed to facilitate such a business model is the real estate and the vehicles.

“We have the hardware, the sensors and vehicle controls,” Keese said. “Most are already available. It’s about getting the costs down for the individual technologies.”

He feels the technology costs will come down to about $15,000-$20,000, “making it very affordable by the end of the next decade for mass application in the market.”

Keese modeled out a typical longhaul operation which would incur about $1.93 per mile in total operating costs. Of that, 73 cents per mile goes towards the driver.

“In a transfer hub scenario you wouldn’t need a driver anymore, so you can take that entire cost out of the longhaul portion,” Keese said.

Equipment costs would be higher, but fuel and maintenance should cost less, thanks to accident reduction and efficient driving.

With short drayage hauls on either end, Keese said a fleet would reduce its longhaul transportation costs between 20% and 40%. Another advantage is the autonomous trucks can run around the clock.

“An autonomous truck doesn’t have any restrictions,” he said.

Keese figures the transfer hub model is economically feasible for hauls longer than 250 miles. If the U.S. widely allows autonomous trucks on its highways, as much as 50% of freight could be moved in this manner, Keese said. Fewer vehicles would be required, shrinking the overall U.S. truck fleet by as much as 13%.

Adoption of the model, Keese said, depends on “regulatory and society acceptance.”

“The cost saving potential of driverless trucks will lead to the adoption of new business models such as the transfer hub concept,” he said.


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John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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