Are autonomous vehicles the next competitive advantage?
Autonomous technology is expected to help the trucking industry combat a growing driver shortage.
By Megan Gosch
What role will autonomous vehicles (AVs) play in the future of fleets? Most industry experts agree driverless technology will make a significant mark on the trucking industry, but when and what it might mean for small fleet owners is up for debate.
“This technology will be a game-changer,” says Kevin Hall, CHS vice president, supply chain and continuous improvement. “The last time we saw a disruption of this magnitude in transportation was the invention of the steam locomotive in the 1830s, which dropped transportation costs by 70% and fueled the first industrial revolution. It won’t happen overnight, but autonomous vehicles will become an industry standard.”
From self-steering tractors to drones that serve as an eye in the sky for precision agriculture, autonomous technology is already at home on farming operations, but the technology is now making headway on the road. Transportation officials say the benefits are numerous.
“AV technology gives you the power to see your full fleet and inventory geographically connected in real time, so you can make decisions faster and more efficiently,” says Hall. “You have full line of sight to your assets.”
Early data suggests autonomous technology may decrease the number of incidents logged enroute. Some insurance providers believe the technology has the potential to make roads safer.
AV route technology could help farmers and ranchers without requiring them to invest. For example, grain pickup via an autonomous vehicle could streamline work on the farm and at the co-op.
From better fuel economy and lower maintenance costs to more efficient vehicle routing, autonomous vehicles are estimated to cut up to 35% in operating costs, depending on fleet size and vehicle use.
With five levels of automation, ranging from minimal to full automation, current technology development spans from Level 2 (partial automation) to Level 4 (high automation). “From Levels 1 to 3, a driver monitors the vehicle and takes action when needed, whereas Level 4 requires minimal interaction, especially during specific weather conditions. At Level 5, the vehicle can perform all operations without human interaction,” says Diego Balmoriz, CHS supply chain innovation program manager.
Levels of driving automation
0 – No automation
Manual control. A human performs all driving tasks.
1 – Driver assistance
Single automated system (e.g., monitors speed through cruise control)
2 – Partial automation
Vehicle can perform steering and acceleration. Human monitors driving tasks and can take control at any time.
3 – Conditional automation
Environmental detection capabilities. Vehicle can perform most driving tasks, but human override still required.
4 – High automation
Vehicle performs all driving tasks under specific circumstances. Geofencing is required. Human override is an option.
5 – Full automation
Vehicle performs all driving tasks under all conditions. Zero human interaction or attention is required.
“Widespread commercial availability will be highly dependent on legislation, and legislation will move as fast as players in the industry can execute pilots and demonstrate the technology is safe,” Balmoriz says.
Legislation in 44 states addresses autonomous technology, but the specifics of that legislation vary widely. “There’s a clear path ahead, but it’s a slow uphill climb,” Balmoriz adds.
Ongoing driver shortages make that battle one worth fighting. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, job participation is at a 40-year low and will continue to decline in the next 10 years. With a mature labor force and many drivers retiring, the national driver shortage currently exceeds 80,000. Experienced drivers are leaving the industry and few new drivers are taking their places. “Autonomous vehicles won’t be a way to get rid of drivers, but AVs may be a tool to help fill the gap,” Hall says.
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