Written by Jack Kennedy, chief executive of Platform Science. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Since 2013, venture capital investment in trucking and logistics-related technologies has soared from just over $100 million to what looks to surpass $2 billion this year. While these investments have touched every category imaginable, no single innovation has attracted more intrigue than the concept of autonomy, or more specifically, the fabled self-driving truck.
The reality is it’s still far too early to know when, or even if, this promise will deliver the cataclysmic disruption autonomy proponents espouse. But if it happens, autonomous trucking will have a significant impact on how we conduct business and employ a significant portion of the middle class.
Regardless of whether autonomy is a game changer or simply cruise control on steroids, this transformation won’t occur in isolation. Here are examples of a few changes we should count on.
Daily Vehicle Operating Costs May Increase
The increased operating tempo of autonomous vehicles will create a daisy chain of new costs. The form and manner of maintenance is the most likely place for significant change to occur. The nature of autonomy suggests that vehicles that are not subject to human labor constraints will spend a significantly higher portion of their day on the road in operation.
Increased road time results in faster mileage accumulation while simultaneously shrinking down-time windows for both preventative and nonscheduled maintenance. In theory, the returns through increased operating time should exceed the cost of any additional maintenance expense.
Capturing economic gains from autonomy will, however, require mastering an entirely new set of processes and systems designed to keep vehicles rolling in a manner that provides a positive return on investment.
Daily Hours of Operation Will Increase
If daily operating times increase, other components of the supply chain will need to change in order to receive vehicles that are operating in this expanded window of time. For example, a load leaving a port could potentially move through the night, leveraging an underutilized high-occupancy-vehicle lane and arriving at a distribution center.
A reduction in mixed traffic and commuter congestion, combined with more balanced road utilization, increased reliability of arrival times and improved safety, seems like a win-win.
However, this assumes that the rest of the world, particularly the supply chain, is ready to change its operating framework to accommodate these expanded windows of operation. In the drayage example, open port gates and corresponding labor adjustments would be required to support this change. Similarly, distribution-facility operators and their associated tenants must see the benefit in remaining open during these expanded windows of time. The list of required changes goes on from there.
Finally, successfully deploying autonomy also creates new challenges for policy makers. Debates among a myriad of constituencies across the “embrace” autonomous trucking to “not in our lifetime” spectrum will likely consume considerable time and take unpredicted twists.
Many hurdles lie ahead before widespread adoption.
Burdens on Systems will increase
Maximizing the value of autonomous trucking will require a hyper focus on systems, as the ratio of operating to nonoperating hours shifts in favor of operating time. Connected, intelligent systems will need to monitor and maximize up-time from a maintenance perspective and economic vehicle deployment decisions.
In a paradigm that requires vehicles to run much more often, inefficiencies in either the maintenance or deployment side of a transportation organization will be exposed at significantly higher rates than they are today. Autonomy will be a magnifying glass for inefficient operating or decision processes.
Connected systems will perform vital functions down to the propulsion level, monitoring health, performance optimization, critical-event alerting and any other metrics requiring real-time awareness. This will be equally important for safety and efficiency of optimization purposes.
The need for data sharing will increase
Those same systems will need to share data through common analytics tools where time-series analysis, machine learning and artificial intelligence will contribute to a virtuous cycle of efficiency improvements.
When we look at the combined promise of autonomy and connected technologies, it is easy to imagine a transportation world that evolves from a batch process into a continuous flow operation.
This world will likely be dominated by firms that maximize the value of connected real-time data-driven analysis and systems. It will be devoid of companies that become victims of autonomy that magnifies the vulnerabilities of their inefficient operations.
It is easier to imagine the end goal: a place where every asset is connected, sharing information and managed by a system that makes choices based on aggregate outcomes. It is much harder to predict the order of the individual steps on the path to that end.
Either way, it appears it is just a matter of time before we arrive at a point at which technology will no longer be the hurdle. Then, our collective abilities to twist the various elements of a Rubik’s Cube of technology, operational and policy factors into their proper positions will determine our arrival at an autonomous horizon.
Editor’s note: Jack Kennedy is the former president of Qualcomm Enterprise Services and currently founder and CEO of Platform Science, an open-source technology platform for commercial fleets.