BY MARK B. SOLOMON, EXECUTIVE EDITOR–NEWS
FOR ANY NUMBER OF REASONS, THE IMAGE OF
driverless trucks rumbling down the nation’s highways
doesn’t sit well with many folks. For the nation’s railroads, whose intermodal operations do battle each day
with truckers for shipper dollars, the notion of autonomous vehicles could be well nigh intolerable.
The rails’ competitive aces in the hole have long
been superior equipment utilization, a smaller carbon
footprint, and more-efficient use of fuel. Over-the-road truckers haul faster and with more flexibility, but
those benefits come at a higher cost than using rail.
Autonomous trucks could threaten intermodal’s advantages, however, by significantly reducing the cost of
shipping by truck.
The theory is that over-the-road truckers can use the
technology to reduce labor costs, cut greenhouse-gas
emissions, and slash insurance premiums if insurers
conclude autonomous trucks make for safer operations
than a vehicle piloted by a human. Given that labor and
fuel alone account for around 70 percent of a typical
trucker’s operating cost, the potential exists for a mean-
ingful shift in the cost equation between the modes.
If the railroads are worried about the competitive threat
posed by autonomous vehicles, they aren’t publicly
letting on. Of the four rails operating along east-west
routes that were contacted, only one, Fort Worth, Texas-based BNSF Railway Inc., offered a comment, saying it
is “watching the developments occurring with autonomous vehicles and what their development could mean
for our business.” Jacksonville, Fla.-based CSX Corp. did
not respond to a request for comment, while Omaha,
Neb.-based Union Pacific Corp. and Norfolk, Va.-based
Norfolk Southern Corp. referred queries to the trade
group Association of American Railroads (AAR), which
did not reply to a request for comment.
Yet it’s hard to imagine the railroads just sitting by.
The AAR, a powerful lobbying force, could persuade
lawmakers and regulators to delay regulations or to
Autonomous trucks could spell the end for railroads’ intermodal cost
advantages. But the jury on self-driving vehicles is still out.
Intermodal and the