Maximum Overdrive, a movie released in 1986, detailing Earth’s passage through a comet’s tail causing all types of vehicles came to life. However, it wouldn’t be a Stephen King movie if something didn’t go horribly wrong. The driverless vehicles began wreaking havoc and attacking humans. At the end of the movie Earth completed its trip through the comet’s path, the vehicles stopped moving autonomously.
Just 10 years later, Caterpillar released their first driverless vehicle, one that is able to sense gadgets and software control the 40-ton truck’s movements. This is considered level 5 autonomous since no driver is needed inside of the vehicle. The CAT 793F is used at Fortescue Metal Group mines in Australia to transport payloads up to 227 tons with precision due to geofenced paths. These machines have been so successful that in 2018 the trucks hit the hauling milestone of 1 billion tons without a single injury.
It wasn’t until 2014 when vehicles that could drive themselves started operating on roads among traffic with Tesla’s autopilot technology. This software integration has presented a few concerns and even when there are problems, the human in the driver’s seat can take over, thus considered level 4 autonomy. This leads me to think, how will autonomy play into tractors hauling 28 to 53-foot trailers?
McKinsey and Company has offered a view of how autonomous trucks will be integrated among everyday drivers. They are currently within the first stage of four, where truckers will be driving in convoys where two trucks are electronically tethered together while on the highway. This method of transportation is called platooning which allows data to be captured on how the second truck follows the leader. In the second stage, which will not begin until 2022, the platooning software will be robust enough to drive the second truck on its own. During this 3-year period of constrained platooning, trucks without a driver will still need to stop at a hub before entering surface streets for a human to take control. In the third phase between 2025-2027 we can expect to see two or more trucks platoon while on the highway with no human touch required until taking an exit. After 2027, the need for truck drivers will be eliminated as the autonomous driving system (ADS) will navigate the truck from start to finish.
The plan allows for plenty of time for any bugs in the software to be worked out in addition to building a form of infrastructure for hubs to allow for effortless autonomous transition . What the plan did not consider is fleet size playing into platooning. Most companies that create their own product that have enough trucks on the road to platoon like PepsiCo, Walmart, or Halliburton are more concerned with other products than creating an autonomous fleet. Also, the few third-party logistic companies that are large enough to employ platooning are interested in only growing their current business model instead of trying to create a new department that could jeopardize the majority of their employees, the trucker drivers. The burden of discovery for autonomous trucks falls on smaller carriers.
The two key players for researching and developing ADS are Otto and Starsky. Both companies can retrofit trucks with $30,000-$100,000 worth of hardware including GPS, radars, accelerometers, gyroscopes, depth cameras, and LIDAR most importantly. A topographic LIDAR is a light detection and ranging device that uses pulsing lasers to measure distances on land. Otto made headlines first in October 2016 when it teamed up with Anheuser-Busch to make a delivery in Colorado over a stretch of 120-mile highway. Granted a driver was required when navigating highway ingress and egress, the truck’s ADS took control on the whole highway trip. As for Starsky, they broke a land speed record for an unmanned vehicle driving on a highway when its tractor trailer hit 55 miles per hour on a blocked off Florida highway.
While there are pieces of legislation and regulations that must be met based on vehicle size, highways routes, and traffic control, the future isn’t far off from having a world like that of Stephen King’s Maximum Overdrive. Even though the trucks will be moving autonomously, unlike the movie they will be taking actions with humans’ best interest in mind.
Does autonomous trucking sound like a process that can benefit your network? Here at Bricz, we have leaders suited to analyze your supply chain and tailor the best approach based on your business needs. Contact us today at email@example.com to learn more about the strategy behind this new age technology.
Contributor: Matthew Segars Supply Chain Consultant at Bricz