Towards automatization

The vision of an autonomous and electric future was catapulted back into the limelight when Tesla CEO Elon Musk revealed his latest innovation and his first foray into the commercial vehicle market. Although it is not completely autonomous, the Tesla Semi is a semi-autonomous electric truck that, according to Musk, can travel 500 miles on a single charge. Tesla is not the only company that develops electric trucks, but the project has increased the expectations of the sector. Everyone talks about it, especially those of us who belong to the logistics industry. In this sense, how close are we to an autonomous future for the transport of goods?

This debate is not new. Earlier this year, the International Transport Forum (ITF) published a report that looked at how a transition to the use of driverless trucks could be made. The study made a series of recommendations to help governments manage possible interruptions and ensure a just transition for all affected drivers. The main conclusion was that although autonomous road transport will save costs, reduce emissions and allow roads to be safer, the impact on drivers’ jobs calls for a managed transition. In short: now is when we should start thinking of an autonomous future.

We cannot ignore the future

It is possible that we are still far from a future controlled exclusively by artificial intelligence (AI), but companies that handle large fleets of vehicles assume a risk if they ignore technological advances. Players in the logistics industry need to prepare for a future that is more dependent on autonomous vehicles. The lack of planning for this eventual inevitability could result to be very expensive. And the future is here. Have you read about the “beer race” that Anheuser-Busch performed in 2016 without a driver for 120 miles? The adventure on Interstate 25 in Colorado between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs was a record, making it the longest route a truck without a driver has ever made. Despite the historic feat, Lior Ron, co-founder of Otto, the company that develops autonomous truck technology that sponsored the project, believes that in the immediate future artificial intelligence will simply act as a co-pilot for a truck driver.

DHL will begin the testing several autonomous delivery vehicles in 2018, including the DHL StreetScooter, thanks to its cooperation with Nvidia and ZF, one of the largest automotive suppliers in the world.

And while the majority is still talking about Tesla’s announcement, the industry is beginning to take action on this. DHL supply chain division has just placed an order for 10 electrical semitrailers of Tesla class 8, which makes it one of the first third-party logistics companies (3PL) to do so. It will begin testing in the United States, once they are available in 2019.

A much needed co-pilot

Both companies and drivers will benefit from the technology. To begin with, the ITF may be right: autonomous trucks will be much more efficient in terms of energy, which will translate into a reduction in costs, as well as the carbon footprint. This is extremely important and for the goal of achieving zero emissions in 2050 that many companies aspire to.

For professional drivers, who work long hours and need to be focused at all times, automatic driving technologies will be a good ally. At present, there is already a shortage of labour in markets such as the United States and the United Kingdom. According to commercial truck news portal, in 2016 there was a deficit of approximately 50,000 drivers in the United States alone and there are projections that 100,000 additional drivers will be needed because the workforce is ageing.

Precisely for this reason, I see real benefits for drivers. The autonomous technology will make their jobs simpler and safer, which can keep the jobs of many of them for longer. The autopilot will handle issues such as acceleration, braking, staying in the lane and speed control and, in addition, will react instantly in certain traffic situations. Drivers will have to monitor all this and stay alert, which will most likely not change in the near future.

Think of the airplane pilots. Although many people can imagine the pilots leaning and reading the newspaper during most of the flight, the fact is that the skill and experience of the same are extremely necessary although some tasks can be carried out in an automated way. For example, pilots must feed the computer with route information and then constantly monitor and manage the system throughout the flight. Therefore, the technology works with the human crew, it does not replace it.

Long before we will see autonomous trucks circulating our roads, I foresee a future with convoys of trucks rolling through the interstate highway system with an unprecedented level of safety and efficiency. The platooning concept involves a convoy of several trucks that use sensors, radars and vehicle-to-vehicle communications to operate basically as a single unit. The technology has the ability to allow a single driver to comfortably control a truck platoon, while also reducing fuel consumption.

Currently, DHL participates in a platooning project funded by the British government, led by transport consultancy TRL, to test the use of this form of communication technology in the UK. In this initiative, drivers will be present in all vehicles with the main driver controlling the acceleration and braking of all vehicles, while the drivers of the following vehicles will have control of the steering wheel of their units and will be ready to take control when necessary. The tests in the UK will provide us with information to better assess the long-term effects of peloton technology on road safety, economy, the environment and traffic congestion.

Taking into account all the technological and regulatory challenges, a completely autonomous future is possibly farther away than some people think. However, that should not stop us, nor the governments of the whole world, when looking to the future. In this way, we will not only be prepared to manage the transition and avoid possible interruptions, but we will also reap the rewards of an autonomous future. Artificial intelligence will never replace the drivers of our industry, but it can help improve their performance and, if properly exploited, has the potential to make their work easier and safer.

Source: El Vigia Opinion Piece