You are driving down the interstate. Ahead is an 18-wheeler struggling up the grade. You swing out to pull around him and give it the gas. What the $#!%? On your right is a wall of trucks – a dozen in all – acting as one long train. Meet your first robot.
There is a lot of buzz about self-driving or autonomous cars. Predictions for when we will really see them on the road are pretty hyped up. Tesla will tell you we are only two years away. Mercedes says they are three years away. Ford and others say 2021. Not sure I would be placing any bets on those. I am not saying they won’t come but it always does seem to take a little longer than the enthusiasts initially predict.
Meanwhile, almost quietly, major rollouts of robots are about to hit the road. And, they illustrate the way automation will complement people not compete with them. The trick is that they are not cars, but trucks – big trucks. Freight transport has been growing more rapidly than passenger transport. It is short on labor and gobbles up an amazing amount of fuel. Anything that addresses either, or both, of these fundamentals means a huge dollar impact for fleet owners and in the end, consumers. Couple that with the fact that limited access highways are much easier for an autonomous vehicle to master (no cross streets, pedestrians, parked cars, etc.) and the motivation to automate trucks is much higher than cars.
The testing in real world situations is already underway. Last year, in the U.S. an 18-wheeler, out fitted with tech from the Uber subsidiary, Otto, did a 120 mile beer delivery run from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Embark, another start-up, regularly ships refrigerators 650 miles from El Paso, Texas to Palm Springs, California. Seems everyone are trying out different operational models using smart trucks.
This is not about machines putting drivers out of work. There are just not enough drivers. The American Trucking Association pegs the shortfall at 48,000 today, and says it could hit 175,000 by 2024. Why? Mostly because the job sucks! Think about it: long hours on tedious stretches of roads where you must remain constantly alert. Pay schemes – usually by the mile, not the hour – that result in poor total pay. And, you are away from home and family for weeks, sometimes months. Sound like the kind of job you want? The result: fleets are not trying to reduce labor cost they are confronted with the potential of no labor.
But what about the other challenge: raising efficiency? That’s where the concept of platooning comes into play. Platooning groups properly equipped vehicles to travel close together and actively coordinate the formation at high speed. Just like drafting in a bicycle race you reduce energy consumption resulting from aerodynamic drag. Studies have shown that there is the potential to save almost 10% in fuel.
Smart trucks with sensors are just one part. To make platooning work the trucks need to all talk to one another. V2V or vehicle-to-vehicle communications fulfills that role. Hard to believe but this has been around since 1999 when the FCC allocated spectrum for its use. Think of this as a mobile Wi-Fi where any node can talk to another and share information, commands, etc. If you have a 2017 Cadillac CTS it comes standard. There is real momentum in the air. Last year a dozen trucks platooned a 1000 miles across Europe. 98% of that mileage was in the auto/platoon mode.
Imagine how being a truck driver might change to make it a more attractive job than today. You are based locally and you wait at your fleet terminal for that day’s platoon to arrive from cities far away. You take your assigned vehicle and make all the local stops then return it to the terminal for it to be reloaded and platooned to another city.
Or, maybe you become responsible remotely from a command center for several automated trucks on their last mile runs. You only need to intervene and drive anyone of them when the AI runs into something it can’t handle. You raise you productivity and wages even more. Either way, you the driver, go home to be with your family and sleep in your own bed. Next day it’s a repeat.
The tech works. Now, the key will be the dance between how fast it is rolled out by the truck manufacturers vs. the demand from fleet operators. It could be soon. The smart money seems to be flowing faster. Lots of manufactures, fleet operators, startups and venture capitalists are piling on. Check out Peloton, a platooning technology start-up. One of its investors is UPS – hmm!