The (Semi) Autonomous State of Trucking

In the last year, the transportation industry has taken great leaps towards the development of a commercially available autonomous vehicle.  A recent analysis by Morgan Stanley shows that the race is not slowing down based on what was seen at the recent VDI Autonomous Truck Conference in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Morgan Stanley has found that there is a broad degree of respect for tech giants such as Google/Waymo, Uber, Tesla and Amazon, who have been spending billions on technological developments in the hope of creating a product that works, and getting it to market quickly.  Regardless of who is first, any OEM will need stable balance sheets to be able to survive.  The analysts expect that significant consolidation will occur as the incumbent OEMs evaluate new start-up entrants and identify potential takeover targets.  At the moment, it looks like it will be the incumbents who will be last to market, as the disruptive tech companies are naturally moving faster.  Waymo and Uber are already testing their vehicles, and Einride plans to make it’s “delivery pod” vehicle available to commercial customers later this year.

This rush to market is giving rise to a number of critics who have concerns over safety.  A recent accident involving an Uber self-driving vehicle, that killed a woman in Arizona, has just added to the fire.  One of the big dilemmas that engineers are struggling with is actually a moral question.  “What should an autonomous vehicle do when there is no right answer to the decision it faces? Is it better to swerve into oncoming traffic or the sidewalk where pedestrians walk?”  Questions like this are hard enough for a human to handle in the heat of the moment.  I would not want to be the programmer that is tasked with the creation of this algorithm.

However, even a situation like the accident in Arizona is not slowing down the roll out of Level 3/4/5 autonomous driving.  Morgan Stanley noted that these developments would have little impact on the progress, and that the main lesson is to ensure the safety and validation of prototype vehicles that are subjected to public road testing.  The report continues to project Level 4 vehicles (driver just needs to be available if the system requires input or during the final mile) appearing between 2020 and 2025 with fully autonomous driverless vehicles by 2030.

Another recent development will speed up this process.  Luminar announced last week that it has developed a new sensing platform that can be scaled to the capacity needed to equip every self-driving test vehicle by year’s end.  The manufacturer claims that this is the most sensitive, highest dynamic range InGaAs (Indium Gallium Arsenide) receiver in the world.  The new LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) receiver’s technology, will reduce the cost of these receivers from what originally was tens of thousands of dollars a unit down to $3.  Luminar is one of the first enterprises to focus on economies of scale, creating a possibly disrupting technology.

So, what does this mean to our industry?  First of all, with Einride’s impending launch of its delivery pod that looks like a box on wheels, but is really a self-driving cargo vehicle, is something that should be on the radar of every LTL carrier.  Over the next 2 years the company plans to have a fleet of over 200 of these vehicles (that have a similar capacity to a 24-foot straight truck), running between Gotehenburg and Helsingborg in Sweden with an expected annual capacity of 2 million pallets.  It is currently designed for moving goods from distribution centers to local e-commerce fulfillment centers.  However, it could easily be deployed to run from a cargo hub to customer facilities that have loading docks.  The pods are capable of being self driving or remotely controlled by a human.  Install some cameras in the back, have two-way communications, and local LTL delivery is a very real possibility!

Second, the development of very inexpensive LiDAR receivers means that things like lane detection and back up sensors will soon be available as standard equipment on all vehicles.  You still need to find a driver that knows how to properly back into a dock, but with this sort of technology accident claims from drivers sideswiping another vehicle should be reduced significantly.  With that savings, carriers should see a direct improvement to their bottom line!

Third, this technology will change what your driver does.  It is quite possible that the driver of the future will be running down the Interstate while working on a laptop to arrange his own appointments, finding his own backhauls from either your own network or through a smart network of carriers, many other tasks currently being done by dedicated dispatch staff.  This is potentially how this technology could have its greatest impact.  In short, you will need a much lower operations headcount as the driver to dispatcher ratio will be much higher. You can either increase your customer service staff, or take it as cost savings.

Finally, the driver will get a greatly enriched work environment.  They will potentially become more of a manager, handling many tasks currently done at the terminal.  The decision making will be brought closer to the customer.  Different tacking and communication technologies will be required to help guide the driver, possibly as a decision tree.  This may appeal more to a younger driver and may attract more diversity to the industry. Quite possibly, the recent Hours of Service mandate could vanish because of this tsunami of tech disruption.