Autonomous Trucks: All Roads Lead To Automation

The signs are clear – the brakes are off for autonomous trucking

In the US, 80 per cent of all cargo is transported by trucks. Trucking is a vital part of the economy, not only because it fulfils the world’s transportation needs, but because of the number of people it employs. Job creation goes beyond the driver’s seat to include the roadside cafes, motels, and even the refuelling stations that keep the wheels turning.

Unfortunately, the trucking industry also produces tonnes of CO2 emissions, uses up vast resources, and is often a very dangerous job. It comes as little surprise, then, that the industry is facing disruption… And so are the supply chains, businesses, and infrastructures built around it.

Assessing the roadblocks

If you asked a child what they wanted to be when they grew up, ‘trucker’ is probably the last answer you’d expect. It’s not a particularly glamorous job, with unsociable hours, and long, tedious journeys. According to a 2015 report from the American Trucking Association, the OTR Truckload industry is expected to face a labour shortage of 175,000 by 2024.

For those who do hold a stake in the industry, there are various logistical sticking points. Communication between drivers, suppliers, and other companies can easily fall down, leading to missed shipments and delivery delays. Drivers themselves can get lost, distracted, tired, and compromise road safety. Trucks are hardly environmentally friendly, either. As it stands, the trucking industry places great strain on the environment through fuel consumption, harmful emissions, and congestion.

Luckily, trucking companies appear to have reached a crossroads at which autonomous technology can meet industrial demand. But what exactly needs to happen before self driving trucks can take to the roads? How long will it take, and how will it affect existing supply chains?

D/SRUPTION asked EasyMile, the company behind the EZ10 autonomous bus, and Geotab, a Canadian telematics firm.

Steering the future of logistics

The gradual adoption of autonomous trucks will disrupt entire supply chains, contributing to the development of smart logistics. But how? For Edward Kulperger, Vice President of EMEA at Geotab, the devil’s in the data.

“Data, AI, autonomous and neural networks, machine learning, and electrification are all going to have dramatic effects on the movement of goods and people in our environment. The transportation sector is literally in the process of migrating to its next evolution of mobility, and telematics, along with data lakes and sets, are the foundations on which the growing fleet ecosystem will thrive.”

Pejvan Beigui, CTO of EasyMile, explains that supply chains across sectors will experience lower costs and greater time efficiency.

“Combining autonomous trucks for long haul freight and autonomous robots for the short term – such as the ones from Nuro in the US or Alibaba in China – means that delivery will become much cheaper, much faster, and ubiquitous,” he says. “Imagine 24/7 delivery services. This would help further the expansion of ecommerce, including items that require freshness like fresh grocery.”

Another industry where supply chain inefficiency has caused more than just a headache is healthcare. Autonomous delivery vehicles could drastically reduce the waiting period for time sensitive medicines and other medical supplies.

Them and US

In the US, where trucking is so important that it has developed its own culture, there is potential for adoption to sky rocket. As has been seen with autonomous cars, US roads offer the perfect testing ground for self drive systems. Interestingly, Beigui and Kulperger reject the idea that the US will experience faster adoption than anywhere else. Why?

“I don’t think that the roads in the US are better designed for autonomous driving,” says Beigui. “They might be less crowded outside of major metropolitan areas, but I believe that the network coverage for 4G and soon 5G is far more challenging than in Europe for example. For a truly autonomous vehicle, network connectivity is critical, as vehicles must be monitored closely from the Cloud to avoid and help mitigate any problems.”

Kulperger points out that it’s worth looking at other areas where autonomous trucks are being developed and tested.

“At the Volvo Concept Lab in Sweden, Volvo is working on multiple types of autonomous trucks in a real world environment such as refuse trucks and heavy duty highway trucks. It’s likely that Sweden will be a main player in the self driving truck movement. Even Scania, a unit of German OEM, Volkswagen, has been trialling platoon technology in Singapore. Alongside this, the Netherlands has also promoted research into the technology – so expect fast adoption in these regions also.”

Trucking good news

Aside from the obvious benefits of cost reduction, and carbon footprint, the increased efficiency of logistics operations, and less environmental impact, what makes autonomous trucks such good news?

“The main benefits will be to reduce the cost of over-the-road shipping, and as a very nice side effect, reduce both fuel consumption and the time to ship. Robots don’t sleep and don’t need to rest!” says Beigui.

Another huge advantage of autonomous trucks, and of autonomous vehicles in general, is safety. It’s a well known fact that the majority of road traffic accidents are caused by the driver, whether due to an error of judgement, tiredness, or failure to notice a hazard. Initially, drivers will act as co-pilots in semi autonomous models and take over control as and when needed. On an environmental level, autonomous trucks will be better able to monitor fuel efficiency and drive in a way that reduces fuel consumption.

Autonomous trucks may not be so well received by the drivers that, eventually, will no longer be needed… Or by the roadside services that look after them. However, even self driving trucks need to be refuelled, maintained, and even driven by real people in challenging areas. Drivers’ roles will change rather than disappear completely, and they will still need to eat and to sleep. Of course, it won’t all be plain steering.

“Without smart roads, and smart infrastructure decisions, smart vehicles will not prosper. And as we stand today, there is still a long way to go before smart trucks can be deployed successfully,” says Kulperger. “Changes need to be made before autonomous cars hit the road, including the development and passing of autonomous driving laws, revision of municipal transportation plans, improved road markings and lane lines, updated traffic signs, and the design and installation of smart traffic controls and vehicle ID systems.”

Another important development is automatic refuelling. To make fully autonomous journeys, trucks will need to be able to self fuel as well as self drive. Electrification may make this easier, as trucks could be charged overnight rather than stopping mid journey.

In it for the long haul

When it comes to setting benchmarks, trucking companies are more reserved than ambitious automakers. Self driving car manufacturers may have shouted the loudest, but there are a number of autonomous trucks already in use. In the US Postal Service, for example, autonomous delivery vans have been deployed in California, and in the mining industry, autonomous systems – including trucks – have been in place for almost a decade.

“It won’t be long before autonomous trucks become the norm – commercial applications typically adopt earlier,” says Kulperger. “It’s likely that the self driving truck will progress gradually, with the first models only able to handle highway driving and requiring a backup human driver to take over should the machine fail to act correctly.”

Input from both the private and public sectors will be instrumental in making the necessary technological and structural developments for successful, self driving transportation. The investment of major global companies like Volvo, Volkswagen, and Uber, as well as government involvement in the form of reports and conferences, suggest that things are moving in the right direction.

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