Supply Chain Expertise and Technology Blog by TMC, a division of C.H. Robinson

Advancing into the Future of Logistics

SelfDrivingAs consumers, we’ve all seen the semiautonomous features that have been steadily added to the cars we drive. Adaptive cruise control, automated parallel parking, automatic emergency braking, and blind spot warning systems are all examples of relatively recent features that aim to add efficiency and safety to our commutes, road trips, and general running around town. In the same way advancements are happening in the consumer automobile space, new technologies are helping shape the future of logistics as well.

At TMC’s 2017 Customer Forum, we spoke about two of the advancements in trucking that are steering us into the future: platooning and autonomy.

Platooning toward safety, efficiency, and savings
Platooning—the grouping of vehicles—is a method of increasing the capacity of roads. Using truck-to-truck communication, advanced sensing technology, and data, platooning can improve safety and the efficiency of trucks. When platooning technology is engaged, drivers essentially drive as usual while wireless technology links each vehicle; a forward-looking radar sensor can sense obstacles ahead and automatically apply brakes in both trucks faster than humans can. When platooning, trucks can travel closer together than what’s safe when drivers are manually driving. The shorter gap between trucks results in altered aerodynamics, reduces wind resistance, and results in fuel savings for both trucks.

As autonomy—self-driving capabilities—in trucks increases, so do the savings. Removing one driver from one truck (partial autonomy) plus platooning can lead to 15% savings per mile, and removing drivers from both trucks (complete autonomy) plus platooning could lead to 40% cost savings per mile.

We believe platooning is a practical use of autonomy that the industry can begin taking advantage of in the very near future.

Bringing autonomy to the trucking industry
Autonomy isn’t an all-or-nothing capability. Think of it as a progressive continuum of ability. We like to think of it as a five-level tier. At level one, humans are still very hands on—most functions are still controlled by a human driver. Level two is more hands off; a vehicle can automate acceleration, braking, and steering. At level three, we have conditional automation; no active driver attention is needed, but a driver must be ready to intervene. At level four, we jump to high automation: trucks are completely self-driving except in extreme weather or unusual environments.

Finally, at level five, we’re at full automation and no human driver is required. There’s a significant gap between level three and achieving levels four and five. The general consensus is that levels one through three will be reached in the next five years, and levels four and five are likely 10 or more years away.

What could a level five autonomous world look like?
Of course, none of us can predict the future, but we can imagine what a level five autonomous world would look like. Autonomous trucks would be mainstream—on all roads, in all traffic—and the cost of it would be closer in line with that of public transportation and long-haul trucking. We also believe that, at this phase, we could see standardized regulations across the United States, with limited differences between states and regions.

In a level five world, we believe it is likely that three critical types of players could emerge: tech providers—companies creating technology for the vehicles—asset providers—those who own the fleets—and mega shippers—those who control the freight.

So who wins the autonomous race? The millions of dollars of capital being poured into tech providers with all different backgrounds speaks to the level of competition within this space.

With asset providers, once you remove the driver from the vehicle, the company that wins the race is the one with the lowest cost of capital. One question that arises is if this will trigger industry consolidation within the truckload sector. This would dramatically change a very fragmented marketplace. That also leads to other big questions. If industry consolidation takes place, does it lead to the creation of megacarriers? Do they then control rates, and in turn would the government step in with new regulations?

On the shipper side of this equation, we believe that in the future shippers will still connect to fleets, but there is this idea of the “megashipper.” We think we’ll see value of a “networked effect,” where if fleet consolidation is happening, the shipper who wins will be the one that can best optimize and access the greatest vehicle usage within those fleets.

While we’ve portrayed these critical players in three separate categories, we know we are also over-simplifying the scenario. In reality, there is a vast number of entrants into this space—and it’s more of an interconnected spider web where companies are exploring partnerships, while still competing and pursuing their own initiatives. And like us, they are unclear on how things will shake out this far into the future. However, one thing that is clear is that the combination of machine learning, machine-to-machine communication, autonomy and megafleets will dramatically change our industry.

Barriers to achieving full autonomy
As mentioned briefly in a previous post, there are five main drivers that make achieving full automation much more difficult. First, the cost of the technology is extensive and will have to come down dramatically. In particular, LIDAR technology—which stands for light detection and ranging, a highly coveted remote sensing method that uses light to measure distance and interpret the world around the truck it is on—is extremely expensive at present.

Next, the world will need to be mapped three-dimensionally in order for vehicles to be able to interpret or see the world around them. This is very complex work, and there is a real battle for the limited talent who can perform this task. Third, our nation’s infrastructure will require a transformation: every bridge, road, and city will need to be outfitted with the right sensors to be able to facilitate machine-to-machine communication and machine learning. And, finally, legislation and social acceptance all need to come a long way, because full autonomy requires complete buy-in and commitment.

Final thoughts
It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities that exist in the future as technology continues to evolve—with autonomy and beyond. Right now, there are plenty of unknowns, but we’ll keep watching, learning, and updating you as baby steps and big leaps lead us into the future of logistics.