Business Comment: Driving autonomously into the futureient industry

Friday, June 30, 2017

By Daron Brinsdon – Teletrac Navman


We’ve come a long way since the invention of the wheel. Some may suggest we’ve left wheels behind, because we can now see, do, find, capture, share and experience much of the world without them. But when it comes to moving physical objects from A to B, wheels (and the engines that power them) still rule.

The evolution of freight

The story of human civilisation is the story of freight transportation, which has evolved as new technologies were introduced and adopted. When the pyramids were being constructed, freight services were provided by human power; elephants got Hannibal over the Alps; and the horse and cart kept freight moving for centuries, until steam emerged as a source of power. The invention of the liquid-fuelled internal combustion engine near the end of the 19th century led to the emergence of diesel powered trucks as the dominant mode of transport in the twentieth century.

In recent years, digital technologies have made an appearance on the transport scene. It’s not unusual to see robots operating in warehouses, while digital is displacing paper for maps and route planning. But, for the most part, digital technologies have yet to register a transformative impact on road freight transport.

That is until now. We’re nearing a momentous point in the history of transport with a new breed of intelligent machines on the verge of powering and piloting the freight task.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

In 2016 we saw the wheels start to roll on the digital transformation of the transportation industry. In 2017 we’re starting to see the first deliveries in several areas.

First, there’s safety and compliance. There’s an ever-increasing focus from government on regulatory compliance and safety. It can’t be managed manually so transport organisations will need to use digital technologies to meet these requirements. But monitoring compliance is only the beginning: we’ll soon see a shift in focus towards organisations using digital technologies to coach and educate drivers, and foster a culture of trust between organisations and drivers.

The second area is one we’re now all familiar with: autonomous vehicles. The technologies controlling these are advancing rapidly around the world, shifting from testing to deployment. It’s too early to say when and at what rate we’ll see drivers being replaced by autonomous vehicles. But we expect in 2017 to see leaders and regulators working towards common goals of maintaining the economy and supporting professional drivers, as businesses look to leverage the potential economic savings promised by autonomous vehicles.

A third area is traffic optimisation. We will see rapid advances in this field when both transport systems and vehicles can be controlled by computers. This will result in quicker and safer travel for everyone without requiring costly roading infrastructure. Already we are seeing map providers working on this in some cities of Asia, Europe and North America, and in 2017 we’ll begin to see the impact of this.

Then there’s anything, anywhere, anytime delivery. This is about developing intelligent freight management systems and integrating systems to enable goods in transit to be monitored and managed in real-time. This allows capacity to be used more efficiently for small transport volumes and better consolidation of larger transport volumes. These new logistics systems also help reduce energy consumption.

The next category to deliver will be big data. Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V) and Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) technologies should leap forward in 2017 – this occurs as more providers share data and more devices create information to share. We’re reaching a tipping point in the Internet of Things (IOT) where enough devices are creating, sharing and using the data they all collect to create a real impact. The ongoing collection, storage, analysis and sharing of information enables machine learning – the data that will ultimately make situational choices. In action, this is a vehicle’s ability to ‘see’ a child and avoid a collision.

Then there’s machine vision technology, which has been in use in the manufacturing industry since the early 80s. Over the years it’s moved from an inspection line technology to having implications in freight, where externally mounted cameras can track things like lane departure or the proximity of other vehicles. This improves safety and reduces risk. It’s a short step from there to ‘connected vehicles,’ where vehicles can communicate with each other about traffic, weather and road conditions, and warn the driver about potential safety hazards.

Similar technologies also support fatigue monitoring: cameras mounted in the cabs of vehicles can monitor driver fatigue by tracking biometric information – for example, head position, nodding, blinking. This provides a range of data points of driver style and fatigue, which can be added to existing data on speed, cornering and so on.

The gig-economy is poised to invade freight transport too. Uber disrupted passenger transport and food delivery, and others are actively seeking to bring this model into the business of freight and trucking. With the passenger economy already booming, a shift in car ownership may occur. If you can call a cheap, autonomous car, and that car comes with government incentives such as reduced taxes, cheaper fuel, and free storage and parking costs, why would you own one?

Finally, there’s vehicle design and operation — developing more environmentally friendly transportation systems using alternative vehicle and propulsion technologies to reduce pollution and noise. These will also ensure safer and more efficient transportation through driver assistance systems or self-driving vehicles. Fuel costs will continue to rise and because of this there will always be a continual call for improved fuel economy. Electric vehicles will continue development, however the industry and geopolitics will continue to hold this back, with some countries expected to hold on to the ‘old world’.

We know what these technologies can do, but the big remaining question is “When?” Microsoft founder Bill Gates said: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.”

How the future unfolds is always uncertain but, in seeking to understand how technology will shape the future of the trucking industry, it’s important to remember that the future remains in your hands. Change is definitely coming but it’s the industry and not the technology that will determine how this plays out.