Don’t Look Now! Robots are Coming to U.S. Roads

By Gary Girotti | Global Executive Vice President, Supply Chain Intelligence and Technology Products, Chainalytics | 

Top-level U.S. shippers at last week’s 2016 Freight Market Intelligence Summit gravitated to Richard Bishop’s timely presentation, “Robots on Our Roads: The Coming Revolution in Moving Freight.”

It’s no wonder shippers are so interested in automated vehicles (AV) and driverless trucks. True driverless truck operations are still a decade or so away, but things are happening right now that are leading toward this eventual outcome. This evolution is coming faster than people think and will dramatically change the economics of transportation and supply chain operations. No more hours of service, no more endless discussion of a driver shortage, but rather true trucking industry consolidation. This is the biggest change to U.S. transportation since the 1980 Staggers Act deregulated the U.S. transportation industry.

Here are my top three takeaways from Bishop’s presentation, which tackled the complex technological, regulatory and compliance issues affecting global automated trucking:

  1. Physical and technical barriers are almost gone; all that stands in the way is perception and politics. Processing speed and power, cost, packaging, vehicle intelligence and deployment investment once stood in the way of AVs. All of these issues have been–for the most part–addressed. No road infrastructure changes are needed; many of the higher-end cars on the roads today have all the technology needed to support near driverless operation; and the cost of outfitting a new power unit with the necessary equipment and software is down to around $5,000.

So what is slowing us down?  People’s perceptions and politics.  Market demand is strong. And powerful synergies between car- and truck-side AV developments are stimulating the                 momentum for using driverless trucks to haul freight. Meanwhile, the industry is aggressively developing AV trucks, and the U.S. government will be challenged to keep up, as                   regulatory/policy issues will be “handled” rather than “solved.”  But this process is not quick.

  1. Various levels of vehicle auto-assist driving are in operation today, led by Europe. Last month’s highly publicized truck convoy sponsored by Volvo, Daimler and Volkswagen involved a dozen or so trucks completing a week-long challenge in which they drove across Western Europe in platooning formation (platooning is where two or more trucks are linked electronically with the lead truck controlling the braking of the entire train). Fuel savings are between 3 percent to 5 percent for the lead truck and 8 percent and 15 percent for the following vehicles.This convoy was just the beginning for automated trucking in Europe. The Dutch government is seeking to clear the way for truck platooning across EU member states, aligning and clarifying regulations for cross-border platooning. Meanwhile, a process is underway to make changes to the Vienna Convention for full roadways in 2017.
  1. Where is the United States in its driverless truck journey? New national laws and regulations are not needed to enable automated vehicles—they are permitted by the National Highway Transportation Association (NHTSA), which currently supports AV testing but not public use (guidelines are expected this summer). Google and others are lobbying Congress to expand NHTSA authority on drive rules. Meanwhile, states like California, Florida, Nevada, and DC have focused on AV testing, but Florida law allows operational use of automated driving. A/V policy reviews/changes are underway in several states. And there are parts of the United States that can immediately benefit from such technology, for example, long highway stretches in the West or other less-densely populated areas.

Bishop reports the U.S. will need to address driverless truck testing, certification, enforcement, cybersecurity, liability and insurance. But as we said earlier, the demand is already there, backed by lobbying and influenced by organizations like the American Trucking Association’s Technology and Maintenance Council.

Meanwhile, make no mistake about it: Automated trucking is not just a trend; it’s a sea change that has long-term repercussions for trucking’s costs and the way shippers and carriers run their businesses in the future. But we’ll be talking more about that later.

Gary Girotti is Chainalytics’ global executive vice president, Supply Chain Intelligence & Technology Products. He provides clients with value via Chainalytics’ Freight Market Intelligence Consortium–a forum that enables members to benchmark and do comparative analysis in a private forum–and the Demand Planning Intelligence Consortium, which enables members to quickly transform Big Data into actionable insights.

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