Self-driving vehicles have the potential to turn around logistics operations. They’re still in a pilot stage, but the potential for efficiency gains and added customer value is very promising. How realistic is the large-scale deployment of autonomous vehicles in logistics in the near future? My prediction: We may not need to wait much longer to see the first self-driving truck on the road.
Autonomous driving is a hot topic in the media, but very few have actually laid eyes on a self-driving vehicle on the road. I believe, however, that the application of autonomous vehicles (AVs) has the potential to revolutionize logistics operations. And, if we look at all the technologies applicable to logistics, in my view AVs are one of the greatest efficiency drivers. At the moment, AVs are already used for indoor warehouse operations and at container terminals. But how can AVs be leveraged further? I believe that an effective application of the technology is especially realistic in two logistics fields: long-haul road transport and last-mile delivery.
Which benefits do AVs hold for road transport?
Currently, our industry is faced with massive driver shortages and the drivers make up about 30% of the road transport costs. The deployment of AVs can solve these problems. Another advantage of AVs in road transport is its potential to increase speed and flexibility of freight flows. Autonomous trucks can operate 24/7: driving bans (e.g. over the weekend), laws regulating drivers’ driving times, and the availability of rest stops, would no longer restrict operations. Speed of transport would also rise because AVs generally drive more safely and economically.
Of course, the deployment of AVs means that logistics service providers and other fleet operators need to adapt their operative fleet management. Dispatchers will have to acquire a new set of capabilities: They will have to be able to remotely monitor trucks and, if needed, take remote control in certain traffic situations. In addition, platooning (which means multiple trucks forming a group by driving very close to each other) will make short-term cooperation between various logistics service providers and fleet operators possible. Such coupling of AVs of different operators to form a platoon can be managed by a central platform.
Which benefits do AVs hold for last-mile delivery?
I am certain that AVs can also transform last-mile delivery. Today, last-mile delivery mainly relies on couriers getting in and out of delivery vans hundreds of times a day, searching for short-term parking spots in congested urban areas, and carrying parcels to people’s doorsteps. AVs can support couriers, making various steps in this process more efficient.
With the support of an AV, a courier would only need to carry the parcel from the AV to the doorstep. In this way, more parcels can be delivered per courier. When returning to the vehicle, either the next parcel is ready to be picked up or the courier can jump onto the platform on the rear of the vehicle and hold onto a handle similar to a garbage truck.
Developments in the field of AV-based delivery, such as robots that carry a parcel or self-driving micro deports that can carry multiple parcels, can support the work of couriers further and thereby increase efficiency and flexibility of last-mile delivery.
AV applications in these logistics fields show clear business potential, but there are still some obstacles to overcome before we can roll out large-scale AV solutions.
Autonomous driving: The new reality for logistics?
You may wonder when AVs in logistics will actually become a reality. For this, first several roadblocks need to be overcome.
Firstly, the technology’s maturity. Robotaxis are, for example, currently piloted in cities with dry, sunny weather conditions, which are favorable to the used perception technologies such as LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging, a remote sensing method to examine the earth’s surface). Other weather conditions, like rain and snow, still present major challenges. Another technological issue is that the vehicle needs to drive safely, without any accidents. This requires the AV to be able to identify all objects as well as predict their movement. A particularly hard-to-realize but – for obvious reasons – the most crucial requirement.
Another difficulty is the regulation in this area – when it’s too strict it can hamper implementation, when it’s lacking it may cause legal uncertainty and public safety risks. Currently, regulations are not comprehensive nor consistent. A harmonized regulatory framework is a prerequisite for seamless long-haul cross-border transport.
And lastly, cyber security needs to be ensured as this a precondition for safe AV-based operations.
It is clear that while AV-applications show promise, there are quite some issues to be tackled which will ultimately determine how fast we can implement and scale up AVs in logistics.
Advancements in digital technologies and AVs, in particular, will surely leave their mark on the logistics industry. The full deployment of AV in logistics can potentially create significant efficiency gains and added value for the end-consumer. But before we can even think of a large-scale implementation, it is clear that the technology needs to mature, and fitting regulations and cybersecurity measures need to be put in place.
I believe AV-based long-haul transport will be deployed faster than AV-based last-mile delivery for two main reasons: Firstly, in markets that experience the rising pressure of severe truck driver shortages, like the UK and the US, self-driving trucks present a much-needed solution. Secondly, AV-based last-mile delivery is still facing larger technological challenges that need to be overcome before a broader scale application is possible, whereas tests with long-haul trucks with various degrees of automation ranging from highway pilots to fully autonomous vehicles show that we are close to implementation. In Germany, for example, Daimler Trucks is testing the autonomous concept “Mercedes Benz Future Truck 2025”, and in the US, Freightliner (a Daimler-owned company) is testing the “Freightliner Inspiration Truck” also featuring platooning technology. Moreover, Tesla’s Semi truck (expected to start production in 2019) has been spotted when testing its autonomous driving capabilities transporting equipment between the gigafactory in Nevada and the Tesla factory in California. And in Singapore, the Belgian logistics company Katoen Natie is piloting their autonomous vehicle on an eight-kilometer-long route between US oil giant ExxonMobil’s packaging and intermediate storage facilities. In the final stage of the pilot, the truck is scheduled to go on public roads.
When looking at these cases, it becomes clear that the adoption of AVs for long-haul transport will introduce a new reality for logistics rather sooner than later.