It is expected the logistics industry will adopt self-driving vehicles much faster than most other industries. The primary concern for automated motorized vehicles is personnel and property damage liability. Secure areas and minimal personnel mitigate liability risks creating ideal conditions for an automated environment. Also, the grid design of a typical warehouse makes for generally simplified navigation of an automated forklift, for example. The limited and repetitive tasks required to stack and transport pallets does not require complicated programming and sophisticated hardware. With these considerations in mind, it’s possible that a warehouse may be the ideal environment for a completely automated storage and distribution facility. Most high-volume warehouse facilities today have some degree of autonomous technology in use. It may require a leap of faith to go to 100% automation.
Automated Trucks Should Increase Efficiency And Reduce Cost
Sixty-five percent of the nation’s consumable goods are trucked to market. With full autonomy, operating costs would decline by about 45 percent, saving the US for-hire trucking industry between $85 billion and $125 billion. The big question is how this savings will be distributed. How will shippers and carriers divide the lower costs of logistics? Or will most of the surplus move to consumers, in the form of lower prices?
Self-driving vehicles in warehouses have the ability not only to transport goods, but also to combine other process steps, such as loading and unloading, to increase the overall efficiency of an entire process. In addition to providing efficiency gains, self-driving vehicles can also significantly increase safety in transport and loading processes. These operational advancements are certainly attractive from a cost and performance perspective to any CFO. Automation also reduces overall employee related benefits and liability. All this technology is great, but we have to ask ourselves: "While the robots run the warehouse, where do I go to work?". New technologies are encroaching into human skills in a way that is unprecedented. Many middle-class jobs are most likely to be affected.
Automated Truck Implementation Time Frame
The first two waves will feature “platooning,” a technique to connect wirelessly a convoy of trucks to a lead truck, allowing them to operate safely much closer together and realize fuel efficiencies. Platooning with drivers, the first wave, will still require a driver in each truck (SAE International calls this Level 3 autonomy, or “conditional automation”). Over the next three to five years, networks of these connected convoys will develop, utilizing algorithms to link up. With better aerodynamics that lead to fuel savings, these convoys could reduce the operating costs of a truck by roughly 1 percent.
In about five to seven years, the next wave, driverless platooning, will take hold. On interstate highways, these platoons will feature a driver in the lead truck and unmanned trucks following close behind. Upon leaving the highway, drivers will resume control of each vehicle. We estimate that the savings in fuel and labor will cut operating costs by an additional 10 percent, though savings will be dependent on the proportion of highways and surface streets in the route. In every wave, long-haul routes will offer greater savings.
In roughly seven to ten years, we expect a third wave of AT development: constrained autonomy (SAE International calls this Level 4 autonomy). Unmanned trucks will operate throughout the interstate-highway system and other “geofenced” areas without a platoon, subject to weather and visibility conditions, and developments in infrastructure such as the ability to communicate with traffic lights. Drivers will meet the trucks at the interstate exit and drive them to the ultimate destination, navigating city streets, local and pedestrian traffic, parking lots, and loading docks. This constrained autonomy will produce total savings of about 20 percent.
More than ten years from now, we expect the first fully autonomous trucks, operating at scale without drivers from loading to delivery (Level 5 in the SAE International framework). These ATs will reduce today’s operating costs by 45 percent—though it will take many years for the autonomous fleet to displace the nonautonomous national fleet.
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