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Trucks stuck in a jam in Southern Germany. Photo: Peter Kneffel/AFP/Getty Images

As the rapid growth of e-commerce continues — it accounted for 42.5% of all retail sales growth last quarter — it's putting pressure on the U.S. trucking industry, which is already facing a 63,000-driver shortage, and bolstering the case for autonomous trucks.

Why it matters: The trucking industry's driver shortage is projected to hit 175,000 drivers by 2026 and may push retailers toward using autonomous trucks even sooner than passenger AVs are deployed.

The big picture: Autonomous trucks could offer one major advantage over current options: greater flexibility. They could cut costs associated with drivers and operate with higher fuel efficiency and less maintenance due to optimized driving patterns.

They also make for an easier use case than passenger AVs, as deployment would not require assuaging passenger safety concerns. And since they're work vehicles, sleek design would not be prioritized over any necessary but bulky sensors, processing hardware or batteries.

What to watch: In the next few years, AVs could be used for last-mile deliveries within fixed areas.

  • Next, as sensor technology evolves, platooning of large trucks with a single driver could roll out, particularly for night driving and complex urban areas.
  • More advanced autonomy would still include a driver to oversee pickups, drop-offs and infrequent moments of driving assistance. As heavy-duty AVs become truly driverless, though, they could start with simple, long-haul rides between urban areas.

Yes, but: Aspects of AV technology still need to improve, and trucks present unique infrastructure needs.

  • Although platooning could be an early use case for autonomous trucks, most bridges are not designed to bear heavy trucks closely following each other. Steering software would need to detect bridges and potentially modify course.

The bottom line: Autonomous commercial technology and connectivity could add $3 billion in profit to the truck industry by 2030 — not as soon as some e-commerce businesses might hope, but possibly before fully autonomous passenger AVs are available.

Bernd Heid is a senior partner in McKinsey's Cologne office and a member of its European automotive and assembly sector, which advises companies working on AVs and commercial trucking.

Go deeper: Read McKinsey's report on the future of commercial vehicles.

Go deeper

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Here come Earmarks 2.0

DeLauro at a hearing in May 2020. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Appropriations Committee is preparing to restore a limited version of earmarks, which give lawmakers power to direct spending to their districts to pay for special projects.

Why it matters: A series of scandals involving members in both parties prompted a moratorium on earmarks in 2011. But Democrats argue it's worth the risk to bring them back because earmarks would increase their leverage to pass critical legislation with a narrow majority, especially infrastructure and spending bills.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

UN says Paris carbon-cutting plans fall far short

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Nations' formal emissions-cutting pledges are collectively way too weak to put the world on track to meet the Paris climate deal's temperature-limiting target, a United Nations tally shows.

Driving the news: This morning the UN released an analysis of the most recent nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — that is, countries' medium-term emissions targets submitted under the 2015 pact.

Biden condemns Russian aggression on 7th anniversary of Crimea annexation

Putin giving a speech in Sevastapol, Crimea, in 2020. Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

President Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for the people of Ukraine and vowed to hold Russia accountable for its aggression in a statement on Friday, the 7th anniversary of Russia's 2014 invasion of Crimea.

Why it matters: The statement reflects the aggressive approach Biden is taking to Russia, which he classified on the campaign trail as an "opponent" and "the biggest threat" to U.S. security and alliances.

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