Dennis Berman

“Holy s—,” exclaims Kevin Mullen, the safety director at ADS Logistics Co., a 300-truck firm in Chesterton, Ind. “If I didn’t have to deal with drivers, and I could just program a truck and send it?”

Roughly speaking, a full-time driver with benefits will cost $65,000 to $100,000 or more a year. Even if the costs of automating a truck were an additional $400,000, most owners would leap at the chance, they say.

“There would be no workers’ compensation, no payroll tax, no health-care benefits. You keep going down the checklist and it becomes pretty cheap,” adds Mr. Barrett of Scranton, who says he can’t find enough drivers.

Drivers call this nonsense. “People come up with these grandiose ideas,” says Bob Esler of Taylor, Mich., who has been driving a truck since 1968. “How are you going to get the truck into a dock or fuel it?”

Of course, the real costs are hard to peg. Most experts on autonomous vehicles say that at least initially, the robot trucks will have to run on roads separate from regular vehicles, or via embedded roadside beacons. That won’t be cheap.

And then there is the primary issue of safety—of the cargo and people on the roads. Most in the industry believe that machines should eventually become better drivers than humans. It is going to take a long time to prove the case to governments and the public. But a payoff awaits. The U.S. government estimates the costs of truck collisions at $87 billion a year, with 116,000 people either killed or injured in truck and bus crashes.