Until the last few years, the idea of a self-driving vehicle probably struck most people as something out of a science fiction novel or The Jetsons. But with Google, Tesla, and a handful of other notable Silicon Valley companies regularly making headlines with their race to create and test viable autonomous vehicles, the possibility of a self-driving future is looking more likely.
Autonomous vehicles in the near term
For people in the transportation sector, the prospect of autonomous vehicles (and trucks in particular) tends to be greeted with reactions ranging from distrust and skepticism all the way to enthusiastic optimism. In an industry that relies on the movement of goods over the road, reducing or removing the human element from any piece of the puzzle may seem impractical or threatening. Some people fear for their jobs, some worry about the safety of unmanned vehicles sharing the road with commuters, and others feel anxious about the challenges such massive change will raise in a complex and interconnected industry.
These are all valid concerns, but they may not be totally warranted yet. For one thing, the timeline involved in rolling out self-driving vehicles on a broad scale is unclear. Depending on the manufacturer, spokespeople estimate broad adoption of autonomous technology to take place anywhere from later in 2018 (which seems unlikely) all the way to 2030.
Additionally, the shorthand phrases “autonomous vehicles” or “self-driving cars” describe a wide array of possible technologies. According to a classification system developed by SAE International in 2014, there are six levels of autonomy, ranging from entirely human-driven to entirely machine-driven. Here’s how they defined those levels:
The automated system may issue warnings and/or intervene momentarily, but has no sustained control. A human is required to drive.
Level 1: “hands on”
Minor steering or acceleration tasks can be performed by the car without human intervention, but the driver still has to retain control for most of the drive time. This level includes features like adaptive cruise control, parking assistance, and lane keeping assistance, which are already widely available in many consumer vehicles.
Level 2: “hands off”
The vehicle can automatically take safety actions, and the automated system is able to take full control of the vehicle, including accelerating, braking, and steering. The phrase “hands off” should not be taken literally, however; human drivers will still need to stay alert at the wheel to take over if the automated system doesn’t respond properly.
Level 3: “eyes off”
The vehicle still requires a human driver, but other than occasional interventions, the driver can safely turn their attention away from most driving tasks. The automated system can handle routine driving as well as most situations that require an immediate response, like emergency braking.
Level 4: “mind off”
The vehicle can drive itself without any human input most of the time, but it may not be programmed to drive in unmapped areas or severe weather conditions. In those instances, the vehicle may be programmed to end the drive somehow (possibly by pulling off the road and parking itself) if a driver does not retake control. In most cases, however, a human driver could theoretically sleep or watch a movie while the vehicle operates itself.
Level 5: “steering wheel optional”
No human intervention is required at any time or in any road conditions.
Of these six levels, humans are needed (to varying degrees) in five of them, with active participation from a trained driver necessary in at least three of the levels. That means any fears about immediate and widespread driver unemployment are most likely unfounded. In fact, at the 3PL and Supply Chain Summit in Atlanta last month, Mike Reid, the Chief Operating Officer at Embark Trucks— one of the leading developers of the AI technology that will power autonomous vehicles— predicted that “anyone employed as a driver today will be able to retire as a driver.”
The potential for an autonomous future
While the future of autonomous vehicles may be several years away, and presents plenty of challenges that need solving, many people in the tech and transportation sectors are optimistic about the benefits of more automation on the road. The answers to some of the costliest and most difficult pieces of the logistics puzzle may lie in the future of self-driving vehicles.
Here are a few of the possible benefits that partially autonomous or fully self-driving cars and trucks could bring to the global supply chain:
An estimated 94% of crashes on the road today are caused by human error. Because they can quickly make accurate decisions based on road conditions, cargo weight, and other data, autonomous vehicles are expected to improve safety outcomes dramatically. By reducing driver input, accidents caused by sleep deprivation, distraction, and other human factors could become nonexistent. Even though consumer adoption of self-driving technology will likely lag behind industrial adoption, having the largest vehicles driven partially or fully by machines will make roads safer for human drivers and passengers.
An answer to the driver shortage
For a variety of reasons, the number of over-the-road truck drivers has not kept pace with the demand for available truck capacity in the past few years. Widespread adoption of autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles could reduce the number of drivers needed industrywide. In theory, this could significantly increase the amount of capacity available and bring shipping costs down, solving one of the most pressing issues supply chain managers currently face.
Faster shipping speeds
Human drivers require sleep, food, and rest breaks in order to safely operate heavy machinery, which limits the total number of hours in a day that a truck driven by a person can remain in operation. An autonomous vehicle— especially one that requires minimal or no human input— could theoretically run continuously 24 hours a day, taking advantage of the overnight hours when human traffic is less of a factor. This means autonomous trucks could cover long distances 2-3 times faster than human-driven trucks currently do, increasing efficiency and reducing turnaround times.
A more efficient last mile
Last-mile delivery accounts for one-third of transportation costs, making it one of the most vexing problems for anyone who works in logistics, and a top priority for innovators in the autonomous vehicle space. In the past few years, several high-profile tech companies around the world have developed and tested futuristic-sounding concepts to solve this issue, including robotic delivery carts or the use of self-driving trucks as moving deployment facilities for parcel delivery drones. As complex and far-fetched as these ideas may seem, there’s good money to be made from finding a workable solution to this costly part of the supply chain, so it’s likely to get a lot of attention in the near future.
While fears of robotic trucks putting all drivers out of work or running roughshod over highways with no regard for human life make for fascinating think pieces and dystopian novels, they don’t reflect reality. However, it’s similarly unrealistic to imagine that every single problem plaguing the transportation sector will be completely solved in the next year or two by self-driving trucks.
In all likelihood, the next few years for most people in the logistics industry will look much like the last few years: fluctuations in supply and demand driven by a combination of regulatory, demographic, economic, and natural factors. Supply chain managers will still need to be adaptable and skilled at problem-solving to succeed, and good drivers will still be in high demand. While autonomous technology may eventually shift the skills needed, humans will be necessary in every link of the supply chain for the foreseeable future.
As with any other sweeping technological change, autonomous vehicles will solve some problems, present others, and take longer to materialize than many people hope. In the meantime, it’s a good idea to stay up to speed on the latest industry news and work with a trusted logistics partner who can help you navigate the changes coming in the next few years. Subscribe to our logistics blog below to keep up with changes, best practices, and industry news, and contact us today to see how we can help find solutions for your company’s transportation concerns.