Outdoor Autonomous Vehicles
The trend of Outdoor Autonomous Vehicles encapsulates the variety of self-driving robots operating primarily outside on land or water, both within private property and on public rights of way. This trend focuses on vehicles that are either completely driverless or at least highly automated with occasional control by a human driver.
The dream of self-driving vehicles has been decades in the making. Bolstered by rapid developments in artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, and sensor technologies, it has come even closer to reality in recent years with all modes of highly automated vehicle making an appearance on the market and fully automated vehicles making test debuts. In late 2021, American startup TuSimple completed the first-ever fully autonomous semi-truck run on public roads, and a few months later, a Japanese consortium of freight companies successfully sailed and docked the world’s first fully autonomous container ship without a crew onboard. In the logistics industry, manufacturers, owners, and leasers of all modes of vehicles are starting to look excitedly ahead at what is to come, not just for shipping purposes, but all possible use cases along a supply chain.
The Outdoor Autonomous Vehicles trend will have high impact in logistics as it will significantly change the operational tasks performed by human workers and alter the way that customers interact with logistics providers in the last mile and elsewhere. This trend’s realization, however, is quite distant. While implementation has already begun with some use cases on private, gated properties, autonomous driving on public rights of way requires societal confidence. It will take many more years before people trust fully autonomous technology and regulations permit unhindered application on a global scale.
There are 6 levels of automation, each with varying degrees and functions.
Relevance to the Future of Logistics
Warehouse yards, airports, seaports, and other facilities typically allow quicker implementation of self-driving robotic solutions than public rights of way since these private premises are not usually subject to stringent regulations. With an industry-wide labor shortage and focus on safety in operations, logistics organizations are eyeing these closed grounds as entry points for various outdoor autonomous vehicle operations, and there are many tech providers ready to provide suitable products and services.
American startup Outrider, for example, has developed self-driving terminal tractors that transport assets within a warehouse yard, including fully autonomous articulated backing capabilities into the docking stations of trailers and containers up to 16 m (53 ft) in length. ThorDrive, another US-based startup, is perfecting its autonomous cargo and baggage tractors for use at airports. Meanwhile, the French company Stanley Robotics is targeting the automobility market with its valet robot fleet that can lift and maneuver finished vehicles, saving space by parking them with greater density than human drivers can achieve.
In implementing these self-driving solutions, logistics organizations can close any labor gaps in yard operations and simultaneously reap the efficiency benefits that adopting such technologies often brings.
Global shortages of human drivers, pilots, conductors, and captains – as well as fewer predictable and set routes – are setting the stage for automation in long-haul, middle-mile logistics operations. Self-driving vehicles in this segment of the supply chain can bring a new level of optimization unachievable with human operators.
With almost instant assessment of the surroundings, autonomous vehicles can minimize crashes that potentially stall the supply chain. Additionally, by driving much closer together at high speeds, two or more communicating self-driving vehicles can form a tight platoon, providing up to 20% in fuel savings and reducing emissions.
Furthermore, without the need for a human crew, more vehicle space can be allocated to cargo. Einride, a Swedish autonomous truck startup, eliminates the entire truck cab, lowering production and operations costs while increasing loading capacity and energy efficiency. Cargo ship designers like Rolls-Royce hope to do the same with future vessels, dedicating more room to cargo instead of canteens and dormitories, to lower transportation costs for each container.
Overall, the adoption of autonomous vehicles in long-haul segments of the supply chain can reduce operations costs and increase efficiency in terms of throughput, capacity, and sustainability.
The last-mile segment of supply chains is expensive, representing about 53% of today’s total shipping costs. With the number of online orders consistently rising and straining delivery services, outdoor autonomous vehicles are seen as a solution that cuts costs while keeping up with demand.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw increased deployment of sidewalk rover fleets, such as the Kiwibot made by a Colombian startup, providing contactless food deliveries en masse to individual customers, with each small rover carrying a single order. Meanwhile, Chinese giant Alibaba went in another direction, developing its own in-house delivery robots that can carry up to 50 packages at once and cover 100 km (62 mi) on a single charge.
Overall, there are diverse automated solutions for logistics providers to investigate and implement to help manage costs and service levels for last-mile customers.
The trend of Outdoor Autonomous Vehicles is slowly advancing towards realization in the logistics industry. Despite regulatory barriers, more and more logistics organizations are adopting self-driving vehicle technology in facilities and in supply chain transportation segments. While it may still be many more years before fully autonomous vehicles handle outdoor operations, we here at DHL anticipate highly autonomous vehicles with occasional human guidance will be commonplace in many locations within the decade.
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- Texas A&M Transportation Institute (2022): Next level trucking: Autonomous truck platooning a game changer for fuel efficiency, safety
- Insider Intelligence (2022): The challenges of last mile delivery logistics and the tech solutions cutting costs in the final mile