The trucks of the future will drive themselves

Driverless trucks are one of those areas in the supply chain logistics industry that certainly has a lot of hype and buzz around it, but at the same time, there’s a lot of development as well and it’s not a question about when will we see driverless trucks on the road or even if, and, assuming that they will play a bigger role moving forward, what impact will it have on shippers, carriers, technology providers and so forth.

Let’s talk about driverless trucks, which are also known as autonomous vehicles. It’s really a spectrum of technologies that’s involved in all of this. There’s a lot of buzz and hype around this, as we mentioned before, and lots of developments; and it seems like every day you pick up a newspaper and you see some sort of new development taking place, whether on the technology front or on the lobbying or regulatory front. But how can we characterize a current state of driverless trucks and what are some interesting accomplishments so far?

It’s interesting how this has developed rapidly over the last couple of years. Today there’s eight states in the country -including Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, Utah, and Arizona- that are allowing the testing of self-driving vehicles and in certain roadways. A lobbying group called the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets was formed, and Volvo, Ford, Google and giants such as Lyft and Uber formed this coalition and hired Dave Strickland as their spokesman, who was a former chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), so there’s a lot of activity going on to start working on the government regulation side. In addition, a lot of what’s happening so far has been around new vehicles that would be autonomous.

A couple of former Google engineers and execs announced the creation of a new venture called Ottomotto, and they are heavily involved in the self-driving program. They formed a new company focused on migrating this technology into existing transportation in America, by retrofitting tractors that are already on the roads today with self-driving capabilities, so that’s a new, big breakthrough because of the sheer amount of equipment that’s out there that could be retrofitted and it would cost about $30,000 per piece of equipment.

wright-self-drives-scania_logistics_trucks_david-kiger_driverless-trucks
Image courtesy of Scania (Great Britain) Limited at Flickr.com

An interesting thing about the lobbying group is that some heavy lifting will be needed from a regulatory standpoint to move this forward. Another interesting aspect is that, in Europe, there was an exhibition around platooning. A number of trucks did a platooning demonstration where they had like a few trucks driving one behind each other, only the one in front had a driver and the ones behind it did not. So they demonstrated the capacity of platooning by driving across Europe. That’s another element of this where you have the driverless vehicles themselves. But how do you leverage them?

Platooning is without a doubt a potentially great way to start to get the autonomous vehicles in the marketplace because it’s a bit of a step change: you still have the driver in the front truck, leading the pack, and then you have the other trucks following that leader in close proximity. This means there’s a value of efficiencies around fuel consumption and drafting and these types of things. There’s a cost reduction when you don’t necessarily need to have a driver in every vehicle, but there’s a smaller leap for the government and the driving public if they feel comfortable knowing that there’s still a driver behind the wheel that can take control if something from the technology perspective happens.

Platooning can be thought of almost like a railroad, with the “engineer” in front. Many years ago there were several people working aboard freight trains, and the number of people required went down as time passed by. Platooning is the equivalent of a freight train with cars, except that instead of rail lines you’re on the highway. But why are driverless trucks so interesting today? Is it because they’re a novelty or is there a business case for them?

What’s really driving them today is that this is one of the most compelling economic business cases that you can have when you’re bringing out new technology. There’s been a driver shortage in the past few decades, and there’s been a huge turnover, as well as problems in the driving workforce for a long time in the industry. The American Trucking Association, in 2015, reported that there’s 48.000 drivers in the industry from a shortage perspective, and an average turnover across all trucking companies today -in driver workforce- of over 90% a year. And the driving workforce is aging. The median age of a driver today is 49 years old, compared to 42 years old for all other US workers. So it’s an industry that has been plagued with shortages and turnover. Hopefully, the appearance of driverless trucks will help solve these problems.

Related content: Read David Kiger’s “Six Sigma: Intelligent Manufacturing”

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