After Google’s autonomous car has crashed in Mountain View, many critics have jumped to the conclusion that the whole idea behind autonomous vehicles in logistics is unsafe. They’ve forgotten to mention that Google’s autonomous vehicles have driven more than 1,4 million miles, without a single incident.
Since drivers are responsible for 94% of car accidents worldwide, it’s not hard to conclude that replacing a human driver with a computer will reduce the number of car accidents and make roads safer. But what else will the autonomous vehicle technology change in the next few decades? They will definitely disrupt the logistics industry, which is currently facing a huge market increase.
Autonomous Vehicles in Logistics
Many people outside this industry don’t know that autonomous vehicles in logistics have already taken on a significant part of the logistics work process. Although there are still no autonomous trucks that transport thousands of tons of goods on the open road, autonomous forklifts, and robot arms are a common piece of technology in modern warehouses. They load, unload and transport goods within the warehouse area, by connecting to one another and forming flexible conveyor belts. These tasks require advanced sensors, as well as vision and geo guidance technology. In addition to warehouses, we can also see autonomous vehicles in logistics in airports, harbors, and yards.
Still, this is far from autonomous driving on the open road. The future of logistics will include large autonomous trucks, delivering goods. Autonomous forklifts will then unload the packages and put them in their place using a network of conveyor belts and robot arms. Some truck manufacturers have already made significant steps to introduce the first fully autonomous heavy duty freight vehicles.
Models that have been released so far
The Mercedes-Benz prototype of the semi-autonomous truck is scheduled for release in 2025. This model’s computer won’t completely replace the driver, but it’ll allow them to do other stuff inside the cabin. So, the same as with autonomous cars, the future of autonomous long haul freight vehicles will begin with advanced versions of cruise control. Mercedes-Benz officials have also stated that this model will make long-haul logistics cheaper, safer and more environmentally friendly.
Mercedes-Benz is not the only company that has manufactured a semi-autonomous freight vehicle. American Freightliner has manufactured a similar prototype. The truck’s computer can take control of the truck on the open road and keep a safe distance from other vehicles. Still, this model can’t pass slow moving vehicles on the highway, but it comes with an alarm that notifies the driver to take the wheel in case of bad weather or some other emergency.
What can we expect?
In the next couple of decades, autonomous vehicles will play a supporting role in the automated logistics process. This technology will help drivers avoid potential dangers, by calculating the safest maneuvers in tough situations. This will drastically reduce the number of road accidents, but a complete machine overtake of logistics processes will need to wait for at least 50 years.
What can influence autonomous vehicle development?
At the moment, the United States and the rest of the developed world are facing a big shortage of professional truck drivers. For example, the American Trucking Association has released an official statement, which says that the logistics industry is short on more than 38,000 drivers. These trends will continue in the next couple of decades, due to the impact of eCommerce. Today, there are many companies that are specialized in eCommerce logistics. These, and many other companies require dozens of reliable drivers with a good track record.
These trends might speed up autonomous truck development, especially if big logistics companies decide to aid truck manufacturers’ autonomous vehicle development programs. This won’t come as a surprise to most experts because labor is among the logistics industry’s largest costs. Autonomous trucks could solve this problem. In the first stages of their implementation, truckers’ won’t need to worry about their jobs. The role of a trucker in the driving process will be similar to a ship’s first officer. Their job will be to step in when conditions become rough. Although truck drivers might keep their jobs in the first years of autonomous vehicle implementation, most experts agree that this process will decrease the number of fleet dispatchers, truck mechanics, and manual laborers.
In addition to all the conditions we have mentioned in this article, the introduction of autonomous vehicles in the logistics process also requires regulatory approval and legislation changes. Since most experts agree that autonomous cars will become fully available during the next decade and that logistics is heavily dependable on profits, these changes may knock on our door sooner than we think.