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An Uneven Road Ahead for Driverless Vehicles


While autonomous vehicles may seem like a futuristic fairy tale to some, these technological game-changers may be closer to reality than you think. Recently, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will issue guidelines for driverless cars by the middle of this summer. The announcement appears to bring autonomous vehicles closer to certainty, but will the introduction of self-driving cars—and by extension, autonomous trucks—match the pace at which the technology is developing?

The concept has come a long way since the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) raised the starter flag in 2004 with its first Urban Challenge, which was part of a program to develop an unmanned combat vehicle. The first challenge featured 15 self-driving cars trying to navigate a 142-mile course between California and Nevada. None of the robotic cars successfully finished the race. There were subsequent challenges in 2005 and 2007. Each time, DARPA made the race more difficult, and each time the technology leaped ahead. In the final challenge, six teams crossed the finish line.

Fast Lane Technology

Today’s Google self-driving car is not far removed from the vehicles that competed in the DARPA Challenge in 2007, according to Sertac Karaman, Assistant Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He recently described the technology’s latest development arc at the Crossroads 2016 conference hosted in March by the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. Karaman was a member of the MIT team that competed in the final DARPA Challenge and is a leading expert on robotic vehicles.

Modern driverless vehicles face the challenge of performing on public roads, and this is where the technology could hit a major speed bump.

As Karaman explained, the challenge of adapting autonomous vehicles to real-world applications becomes harder as the speed and complexity of the operating environment increases. In the world of urban mobility, public highway traffic is about as fast and complex as you can get. In addition, there are regulatory and insurance hurdles, as well as cost issues, that could slow the technology’s progress. The electronics that drive autonomous vehicles do not come cheap; Karaman estimated that the cost of the roof-mounted laser scanner is around $7,000. Costs are coming down, but reaching a viable price point for these vehicles is an obvious challenge.

The concept also has to navigate the U.S. Congress. President Obama asked for some $4 billion over 10 years in his fiscal 2017 budget request for testing and developing autonomous vehicles. But Secretary Foxx reportedly commented that “The reception has been a little frosty on Capitol Hill.”

Reality Check

Karaman believes that self-drive vehicles will gain traction first in more pedestrian settings. Autonomous tractors are already in use on farms, for example. The logistics industry offers a number of promising applications in freight yards and distribution centers. Automated fork lift trucks are now operating in some warehouses.

The recent announcement by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx is an indicator of the department’s effort to be ahead of the technology, and the race is on to develop the driverless car. But it’s important to keep the technology’s rapid rise in perspective. Consider that the process to bring these vehicles to our highways requires both the regulators and legislators. Congress, as Foxx has cited, seems to be indicating their process will be much longer than Foxx’s.

- Director, Research and Market Intelligence, C.H. Robinson
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