The robots will do the dullest, most dangerous tasks first in most things. Freight transport is no exception.

Autonomous driving engineers are completely focused on long-haul freight, the highway travels with almost no complexity except a slow bend or an E-ZPass track. As such, those routes are some of the easier self-driving car challenges.

The biggest hurdle may be infrastructure. The short drive from a factory or distribution center to a highway is usually much more complicated than the next hundreds of miles. The same applies as soon as the machine leaves the highway. One solution is for truck companies to set up transfer stations at both ends, where human drivers handle the arduous first part of the journey and then link their loads to robotic installations for the tiring mid-section. Another station near the exit would send the cargo back to an analog truck for delivery.

Such a system could replace about 90% of human long-haul truck driving in the US, the equivalent of about 500,000 jobs, according to a new study from the University of Michigan.

“When we spoke to truck drivers, literally everyone said, ‘Yes, this part of the work can be automated,'” explains Aniruddh Mohan, a PhD candidate in engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the study. “We thought they would be a bit more questionable.”

However, there are a handful of big ifs. First, the autonomous systems would have to figure out how to navigate bad weather much better than they can now. Second, regulators in many states still haven’t cleared the way for robotic installations. Finally, there’s the infrastructure to consider – any transfer stations where the freight would transfer from the caffeine-powered analog to the algorithms.

But if trucking companies focused solely on the U.S. solar belt, they could quite easily offset 10% of human driving, the study finds. If they deployed the robots nationwide, but only in the warmer months, half of the trucking hours in the country could go autonomously.

“It’s already happening, but in a pretty limited way,” said Parth Vaishnav, an assistant professor of climate and energy at Michigan and co-author of the study. There are approximately 3.3 million truck drivers in America, although many do not stay in the business for long. Long-distance jobs in particular are among the worst. Not only are they long-winded and annoying, but they are also among the lowest-paid gigs. Long-haul drivers are on the road about 300 days a year and earn about $47,000; short-haul routes can be trickier and as such pay better and attract more experienced drivers.

Not surprisingly, long-distance personnel tend to switch completely every 12 months. According to the American Trucking Associations, the industry is currently short of approximately 61,000 drivers. “In our imaginations, we see these as middle-class jobs,” Vaishnav said, “but that hasn’t been the case for a while.”

The driver shortage is so great that US truck companies are trying to import drivers to alleviate what has become one of the most acute bottlenecks of the supply chain crisis. Truck lobbyists are also trying to lower the minimum age for motorists from 21 to 18. So when it comes to driving an 80,000 pound machine that travels 75 miles per hour, the choice could be between a robot or a teenager.

Several startups are betting on the robots, including TuSimple, a San Diego, California-based company that says its self-driving systems cut fuel consumption by as much as 10%. In December, the company removed its human chaperones on an 80-mile road between Phoenix and Tucson. (It plans to begin deliveries to much of the country without human drivers by the end of next year.

“We’re reaching a real level of commercial viability,” said TuSimple Chief Financial Officer Pat Dillon, “which I think is quite exciting.”

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