There is a recent phenomenon here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A small fleet of cars that drive the speed limit, stay perfectly centered in their lanes, and only turn left when they have the signal. Uber has been turning a lot of heads in the “Burgh” with their self-driving car pilot. Ride share passengers are the first to reap the benefits of automation in a controlled setting; however, the next big rig you see may be driving itself.
Earlier this month, the first ever self-driving delivery was made when Uber’s recently acquired OTTO teamed up with InBev to transport a trailer of Budweiser over 120 miles. Current technology limits this type of autonomous driving to the highway, but this is a huge milestone for the transportation industry. There are a few reasons to believe that automation is the future of transportation.
Solving for the driver shortage
According to the American Trucking Associations (ATA) we experienced a shortage of nearly 50,000 drivers as of 2015. Given current trends, this number could grow to 175,000 drivers by 2024. This shortage is attributed to industry growth and a retiring fleet of drivers. Some are concerned that self-driving vehicles could marginalize those who make their living driving; but, there are many ways that automated technology could decrease the shortage of drivers and improve the quality of life for current drivers.
Another reason autonomous driving is well suited to trucking relates to cost savings. This technology can help companies reduce fuel costs and provide more accurate delivery times. InBev claims that it could capture savings up to $50 million annually by deploying an autonomous fleet. This technology is most applicable to long range and expedited transit. These deliveries that traditionally require a team of drivers could potentially be completed solo.
Finally, safety could drastically improve with new technologies. The National Transportation Safety board estimates that driver fatigue may cause 40 percent of all tractor trailer accidents. Self-driving systems could effectively eliminate this issue. Self-driving technology is being engineered with the goal of surpassing the capabilities of a human driver.
In theory, an automated system can think and make decisions faster than any human. Technology does not suffer from fatigue, which should ultimately lead to safer highways. However, there are still many concerns. Harsh road conditions or occasional deer traffic on the interstate could be tough hurdles to overcome. The most concerning dilemma is a “no win” situation where a self-driving vehicle may cause a fatality no matter what choice it makes. This is certainly a possibility while driving alongside people, who are susceptible to error.
There are many merits to automation in transportation. New technology offers solutions to traffic safety, driver availability, and cost reduction. Automation is a certainty in the supply chains of the future. The biggest questions that remain are when and how new technologies will be rolled out for commercial use, and how to overcome the safety obstacles these technologies bring.
For more information on how carriers will leverage OTTO’s technology in the near future, read Brian Pacula’s blog “The Sweet Spot for Otto’s Self-Driving Autonomous Trucks.”