The autonomous vehicle movement, if we can call it that, has seen its ups and downs. From being somewhat of a sci-fi staple, giving us a promise of freeing up our hands to do other things, to finally making some actual strides in recent years, with innovation giants like Tesla, Uber and Waymo investing into research, to eventually seemingly taking a back seat, as no major progress has been made to bring us close to seeing autonomous cars adapted on any significant scale. Has the hype for self-driving trucks and other vehicles petered out, or perhaps we’ve just hit a valley, a peak is ahead of us, and you should actually prepare for a major transformation?
Before we proceed, it’s worth pointing out that the definition of autonomous driving isn’t as clear-cut as one may think. In fact, the Society of Automotive Engineers standardizes 6 levels of driving automation to regulate all sorts of claims car manufacturers make. There are systems in the market that fit into some of the lower tiers but in actuality we’re still pretty removed from what most people would have in mind when thinking of self-driving vehicles.
Now, since it’s often the case that before new tech becomes widely available to the public it is being tried first in specific sectors, I think it’s safe to assume we’ll see truly self-driving trucks used in logistics in advance of such technology being rolled out to the public.
That being said, autonomous trucking will be the focus of this post, as it will eventually arrive in some form or another, so you might as well jump on the wagon early.
What is autonomous trucking?
Autonomous trucking is a term applied to commercial, driverless tractor trailers moving freight from one point to another. This type of automation enables trucks to navigate roads and traffic on their own, without having to rely on a human driver.
The grand goal is to one day expand the technology to all sorts of transport trucks and get them going without human involvement. Perfecting the tech behind it aims to address a number of operational challenges the transportation industry is facing, while also increasing safety by eliminating room for human error.
Albeit self driving semi trucks haven’t seen much mileage yet, they do indeed operate to a degree in some parts of the United States, often still with a driver to take over in case things go awry, however, major players in the transportation industry are investing in this technology which is expected to become more widely adopted in the years to come.
How do self-driving trucks work?
Alright, so if there’s no, or for now little human input into the process of starting, moving, and directing the vehicle, how do autonomous trucks work? How do they manage to stay on course and maneuver?
Well, the technology powering autonomous trucks is a combination of sensors like LiDAR (using light to determine distance), radar, and cameras. The collected data is fed into an onboard computer utilizing digital maps and advanced algorithms to process it and provide the vehicle with a 360-degree view of its surroundings.
When you really think about it, it's not that different from how an actual driver gets their sensory stimuli to make decisions in real-time.
Key elements of self-driving trucks technology
Now that we’ve covered the basics of how driverless vehicles are able to operate, let’s take a closer look at the crucial systems making it all possible.
At the base of autonomous trucking technology are various sensors which are the vehicle’s ears and eyes. They collect data related to surroundings which then constitutes the basis for making real-time decisions as to how to move.
Next up, you have artificial intelligence (AI). Machine learning algorithms are employed to analyze data coming in from sensors and cameras to recognize objects and make decisions on the go. The more data the system collects (think of it as driving experience), the better it becomes at identifying potential hazards and predicting outcomes.
Another key component allowing self-driving trucks to operate are maps and navigation systems. A driverless vehicle will rely on high-precision mapping to figure out its exact location and devise the most efficient route to its destination point. The navigation system’s job will be to help the trucks avoid obstacles and safely maneuver through complex road networks.
Since a lot of digital data back and forth is involved, autonomous trucks need a robust and reliable network connection to operate effectively. This is their version of truckers’ CB radio, the channel where they receive and give real-time updates on road and weather conditions, traffic patterns, and potential hazards. It also enables them to communicate with other vehicles, infrastructure, and fleet management systems.
In an attempt to make it safer, autonomous trucking technology also involves redundant systems. For example, a vehicle may have multiple sensors and cameras that provide overlapping coverage, so if one system fails, there is another to take over. Additionally, these autonomous trucks can communicate with each other as well as the traffic management systems to avoid accidents and reduce congestion.
Finally, there’s also the issue of having proper cybersecurity measures in place, as technology that’s online is vulnerable to attacks and takeovers.
Benefits of self-driving trucks
There’s a lot of buzz around autonomous semis and such just because of how captivating the idea of a vehicle without a driver is, but what exactly are the benefits of this?
Helps combat driver shortage
Should an insufficient number of drivers be available, autonomous trucks can supplement the workforce and help fill in the gaps.
Cutting obvious labor costs and fuel expenses thanks to route optimization.
Lower carbon emissions
Autonomous trucks can be programmed to drive in a more eco-friendly manner, reducing carbon emissions which benefits the environment.
Reduced number of accidents caused by human error, making roads safer for everyone.
Drawbacks and challenges the self-driving trucks industry faces
Autonomous vehicles are an extremely appealing idea generating many likely benefits but considering the stage of development it’s currently at, there’s still a comparable number of issues to be solved before its potential can be truly unlocked.
Challenge #1: Off-highway driving
One significant obstacle is operating outside of highways. Autonomous trucks must navigate around origin and destination points, which can be challenging, especially in densely populated areas. Another issue is the unpredictable nature of road conditions, such as weather, accidents, and other unforeseen events. Although autonomous trucks can perform well under perfect conditions, they may require a safety driver to take control in more complicated situations.
Challenge #2: Connectivity
Varying internet accessibility is another challenge. Autonomous trucks rely on a stable connection to maintain comms with other vehicles and central hubs. On that note, cybersecurity is also a significant concern as hacker attacks can compromise the vehicle's systems and put the driver (if still present) and other road users at risk.
Challenge #3: Laws and regulations
Despite the strides made I discuss in the next section, legislation is still hampering the industry to a degree. Many cities have different traffic laws and regulations that autonomous trucks must comply with before getting a green light.
Challenge #4: General public acceptance
Finally, popular perception is another obstacle, as many people are still skeptical about the safety of self-driving vehicles. As a result, it may take some time for the wider public to become comfortable with the idea of sharing the road with autonomous trucks.
When will self-driving trucks take over?
Well, autonomous trucks have arrived, but not to an extent that perhaps some people in the transportation industry would like them to.
Long-haul autonomous trucking was originally expected to be the first sector that sees automation adopted on a large scale. This has proved to be a bit more problematic than originally thought but all it means, in fact, is that there’s going to be a delay, rather than abandonment of the idea of driverless big rigs.
The main goal for autonomous trucking companies for the next couple of years is to overcome regulations and some other obstacles curbing their expansion.
As of writing, 29 states in the US have passed legislation related to autonomous vehicles. The problem with them is the inconsistency. This renders some of them friendlier for pilot routes and testing, while others make it more difficult for AV companies to gain traction.
All in all, decently advanced self-driving technology is already here and will surely get better. Now it’s a matter of advocacy and education on the part of organizations operating in the niche who are sitting down with policymakers and hammering out regulations that don’t unnecessarily curb the development of autonomous trucking.
How will self-driving truck technology transform the logistics industry?
Changes currently taking place in the logistics industry are driven by digitization and other technological developments which are expected to significantly lower the cost of land transportation. Despite the spotlight being on passenger cars, it’s the self-driving trucks that will actually bring about more change in global logistics.
There are three major areas in the industry that will be most affected by autonomous trucking technology.
Issue #1: Driver shortages
The truck driver shortage is a significant challenge in the global supply chain, particularly in meeting the growing demand fueled by the rise of e-commerce. According to this report, in the US alone, the shortage reached a record high of 80,000 drivers in October 2021, with projections indicating a potential shortfall of over 160,000 drivers by 2030. This issue is primarily attributed to an aging workforce and the anticipated increase in freight volume.
Issue #2: Inefficient load procurement
In addition to the driver shortage, the logistics industry faces another major hurdle of underutilization and inefficient load procurement. However, the introduction of autonomous trucks offers a solution to these challenges by enabling automated loading and unloading of containers in yards and ports. This advancement leads to improved efficiency in operations and distribution, reducing the number of trucks on the road and subsequently lowering greenhouse gas (CO2)emissions.
Issue #3: Distracted driving
Enhancing safety is another promising aspect of autonomous truck technology. The prevalence of distracted driving has contributed to a rise in accidents. Self-driving truck systems have the potential to address this issue by providing a comprehensive 360-degree view of the surroundings, processing vast amounts of information, and reacting faster than human drivers would.
How RST Software can help you adjust your logistics software and fleet management platforms for the autonomous future?
Self-driving trucks are at the forefront of an exciting and rapidly evolving trend that is poised to revolutionize the logistics industry. With advancements in technology and growing interest from major players like Amazon, autonomous logistics is no longer a distant concept but a tangible reality on the horizon.
As we navigate the transition towards widespread adoption of self-driving trucks, it's crucial for companies of all sizes to proactively prepare for this transformative shift. The time between now and the full-scale deployment of autonomous logistics presents a valuable opportunity to focus on the software aspect of your operations.
By investing in adjusting or developing your logistics software, you can ensure that your systems are optimized to seamlessly integrate with autonomous vehicles and effectively control the trucks and machinery involved. This strategic move will not only position your company for future success but also enhance operational efficiency and productivity in the present.
Take the proactive step today and reach out to us at email@example.com to learn more about how our solutions can help you adapt to the autonomous future. Together, let's embrace this exciting trend and drive your business towards a future of enhanced efficiency, increased profitability, and new, exciting opportunities in autonomous logistics.