There’s a growing consensus in the automotive and tech worlds that autonomous vehicles will first be commercialized for trucking, delivery and other functions where there is an immediate payback.
That’s because commercial vehicles can take advantage of automation in more controlled settings that don’t have the complexity of driving through a major city in the middle of rush hour. There’s still a lot of development to be done for robo-taxis and self-driving passenger cars.
Avi Geller, the chief executive of trucking workflow software company Maven Machines, is watching how the market for autonomous trucking is developing. He talked to Trucks.com about the business case for self-driving trucks and the timeline. Here’s an edited version of the conversation.
When can we really expect to see driverless trucks on the road?
Partially autonomous trucks have already begun to venture on the roads. For example, Pittsburgh-based Locomation will equip at least 1,120 Wilson Logistics tractors with its groundbreaking Autonomous Relay Convoy technology starting in 2022. This allows a driver leading a pilot truck with the ARC technology and a follower truck to operate in tandem. The companies announced their agreement after a successful pilot program including two Wilson Logistics trucks using the technology on a 420-mile route from Portland, Ore. to Nampa, Idaho.
Also this summer, San Diego-based TuSimple, in collaboration with Navistar and UPS, is conducting depot-to-depot “supervised autonomy” test runs in Arizona and Texas. The supervision involves someone riding in the cab should the need arise to take the wheel. Later in 2021, the company expects to phase out human supervision and allow trucks to make specific deliveries without someone on board.
What’s beyond that?
Fully autonomous trucks, however, still present quite a challenge. First, the technology driving autonomous trucks isn’t all or nothing but a spectrum with multiple levels. Level zero — which many cars today have — is cruise control. A step up is level one. It includes adaptive cruise control, which employs radar and/or cameras to offer lane-keeping assistance for drivers and automatically braking as traffic slows or accelerating as traffic clears and it’s safe to resume the original cruising speed. Level two of automation controls a vehicle’s speed and steering but still requires a truck driver’s hand on the wheel.
The most autonomous trucks at the moment fall into level three. Trucks can drive themselves — but with limitations and only in ideal situations. Trucks still need drivers in the cab to assume control quickly, but these most advanced trucks can autonomously handle limited-access, divided highways while maintaining a set speed.
Level four looms on the horizon. It’s the level at which trucks can drive themselves without human interactions — but only in certain conditions. Waymo and Aurora are both working right now to develop level four trucks.
We are still quite a way off from level five — the level describing what most people equate with autonomous: fully driverless trucks with zero human involvement. This stage, however, is still years in the future.
What are the topline benefits?
One of the biggest benefits of autonomous trucking is the efficiency it brings. Autonomous trucks could enable companies to move more freight by traveling during off-peak hours. That also benefits regular drivers who would see less traffic congestion during peak driving times. In fact, companies using self-driving trucks could make huge productivity gains and increase system capacity with autonomous fleets capable of operating nearly 24/7. With fewer restrictions on daily drive times, truck ranges could double from 600 to 1,200 miles.
Nearly 5,000 people died in accidents involving commercial trucks in 2018. Of those accidents, over 90% were estimated to be caused by human error. Self-driving trucks won’t require human operators, which could also increase safety. Trucks don’t get tired or make mistakes and poor decisions because of exhaustion — an important advantage with the potential to reduce the number of crashes in which trucks are involved each year.
Companies across the supply chain would also benefit from self-driving trucks. Deloitte predicts a projected 30%+ cost-per-mile reduction in goods transportation.
Where do you see it happening first and why?
There’s no doubt that self-driving systems manufacturers continue to make steady, tangible progress as they bring autonomous technology to the commercial vehicle market. Class 8 trucks already have driver-assist technology aboard. Tech developers continue testing and validating automated sensor arrays and driving software as they develop, evolve and build the ecosystems able to support autonomous operation.
We’ll likely see more progress, first, in SAE level four automated driving, where trucks will be able to drive autonomously without a driver in the cab under certain, ideal conditions. Tech companies working on this software and testing self-driving trucks still have safety drivers behind the wheel. The eventual goal, however, will be to transition to a fully unmanned operation.
And for anyone worried that autonomous trucks will replace drivers, the fleets anticipate using self-driving trucks to complement, not displace, the current driver workforce. Not every route and freight category will be a good fit for this technology. The logistics and transportation sectors will still need professional drivers able to handle loads and applications not well-suited to automation. The American Trucking Associations estimates that the trucking industry will hire 900,000 between now and 2030.
What will the global market for autonomous trucks will look like by 2030?
Markets and Markets projects an increase in the autonomous truck market from $460 million in 2024 to $1.55 billion by 203. An increasing driver shortage may drive the market as will the exploration of e-commerce and shipping companies to eliminate or significantly reduce delivery and transportation costs. Some areas — like mining operations in the Asia Pacific region, especially China — will embrace autonomous trucks to increase operator safety in dangerous situations or places.
Can you break that out for the U.S.?
Markets and Markets predicts continued development of autonomous technology, especially with testing already begun across several states including Arizona, Texas and Virginia. The last-mile delivery truck segment may become the largest market during the next nine years, as using autonomous last-mile delivery trucks may save companies 40 percent of total shipping costs.
According to Goldstein Research, the North American region is expected to become the largest market for autonomous vehicles, with an expectation the market will grow to nearly 4.5 million vehicles by 2035. Key players in the self-driving market — including Robert Bosch GmbH, Daimler, Delphi Automotive PLC, Einride, Embark, Paccar Inc., Tesla, Uber Technologies, Inc., Volvo and Volkswagen — plus developing infrastructure will also contribute as a major growth driver for the autonomous trucks market.
How will fleets leverage automation now as the industry prepares for an autonomous future?
Fleet managers face many complex challenges unique to the trucking industry. One major challenge includes how to gather, assimilate, analyze and use the huge amount of data to make critical decisions. Automation already helps companies use data and technology to increase and improve efficiency.
Real-time location and navigation enable managers to track fleets anywhere, anytime from the cloud. Fuel management systems track fuel requirements and recommend strategies to cut fuel costs. Scheduling and routing systems remove human error and inefficiency to improve delivery and time management. Fleet maintenance systems track each vehicle and note when maintenance or repairs are needed — an approach helping to increase vehicle longevity, too.
We will continue to see rapid advancements in cloud-based, AI-powered and automated fleet management and route optimization technology. These tech advances allow fleet managers to monitor and manage vehicles and drivers remotely in real-time and also dispatch and optimize efficient routes.
Managers can use this software to improve the safety of truck drivers and others on the road. It facilitates monitoring critical events in vehicles, like speeding and harsh braking. Fleet managers and dispatchers can use the tech-generated data to address problematic routes, help struggling drivers and target areas of improvement.
What type of automation are you talking about?
AI-powered planning and route optimization software can solve or help alleviate many issues the industry faces:
- Driver shortages
- Safety and compliance
- Fuel costs
An ability to collect, analyze and use real-time data to plan and optimize routes gives dispatchers time to focus on unique, difficult cases requiring strong planning expertise and a human touch. Fleets are using AI to increase productivity by building better, more efficient routes and even predicting ideal times to schedule deliveries.
Workflow technology enables drivers to focus less on paperwork. It helps boost productivity with mobile apps to streamline daily workflows on the road and at stops — including finding the right terminal bay or submitting bills of lading.
Fleets prioritizing their drivers’ experiences and who utilize quality workflow and driver management technology offer drivers a better quality of life. Simplifying and automating the more tedious, monotonous driver tasks cultivates increased satisfaction and higher driver retention. Everyone benefits. Route optimization, fleet management and workflow software empower drivers to focus on driving. Fleets and managers gain operations efficiency and cost savings.
The future should bring even more opportunities to maximize the potential of AI and ML, with remote cloud-based software deployments and the expansion of digital billing, management and planning tools within increasingly paperless environments.
How are automation and autonomous advancements impacting one another right now?
While 100 percent autonomous trucks won’t be hitting the roads for a while, the commercial trucking industry has already benefited from advancements in automation. And continued innovation with AI will drive even more improvements and efficiency.
For example, AI’s flexibility allows its use for dispatch and in-truck solutions by building and recommending better, more efficient routes by using real-time data to predict the best (and worst) times to schedule a delivery. Besides route-planning, fleets will continue to use automation software to streamline and increase the accuracy of manual tasks, freeing up drivers and managers to focus on tasks requiring more critical thought and a human touch.
Fleets challenged by the driver shortage will also rely on AI, data and analytics to optimize operations and move freight seamlessly, as the bar for delivering best-in-class customer service is raised higher.
We may well see adoption of remote-controlled trucking before completely autonomous trucks come to market, but those autonomous vehicles will rely on a wide range of technical components including:
- AI-based computing platforms to drive real-time decision-making.
- Computer/sensor vision (sensors and cameras used to identify hazards around a truck).
- High-definition maps providing 3D road geometry, boundaries, connections, traffic light/ road sign positions and more.
- 5G vehicle-to-everything (V2X) to transmit important information as structure data and allow trucks to communicate with each other, roadside infrastructure and cloud-based services via WLAN- or cellular-based signals.
The pandemic saw a shift in operations becoming even more connected as digitalization accelerated. Trucking companies have continued to adopt increasingly more affordable digital tools to help optimize their workforces and fleets with automation and real-time visibility. We’ll continue to see this sector using powerful tech like AI-powered analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT), telematics and workforce management applications as a complement to continued advances in self-driving trucks.
What are your top trucking tech predictions?
The digital transformation and evolving technology have enhanced and improved the trucking industry. Those trends will continue well beyond 2021, such as:
- Smart technology improving truck function and safety — including monitoring surroundings in real-time and making adjustments, activating emergency braking — with even more automation components integrated into acceleration, steering or braking systems.
- Technology to help track orders, freight, fuel use, maintenance needs, driver logs and much more.
- Software programs designed to enhance and streamline operations and increase efficiency and productivity.
- AI- and ML-powered route optimization software that collects and sends data in real-time about traffic to help dispatchers reroute drivers or update delivery routes.
- Using data and analytics to optimize workflows, improve business processes, inform decision-making and, ultimately, increase revenue.