Autonomous Vehicles in Freight and Logistics

Autonomous technology could impact the entire supply chain

Autonomous technology could impact the entire supply chain

Whilst driverless cars take the spotlight, freight and logistics companies may see even more benefits from autonomous vehicles – Mark Ruddy, COO at the Transport Systems Catapult explores the implications.

In 2013, when the Transport Systems Catapult was established, autonomous vehicles were a whisper on the horizon, still seen as a part of science fiction by many observers. In just three years the concept has exploded into reality. Live testing is now taking place around the world, whilst global businesses and brash new players are investing heavily to be part of the transport revolution.

Whilst much of the focus has been on passenger cars, the benefits of moving to autonomous technology could be difficult to ignore for logistics companies operating on tight margins. Freight vehicle platooning is one of the early manifestations of this move towards autonomous vehicles; and whilst these will not remove the need for drivers, they may reduce the number required if it improves their productivity. This will be good news to the industry which is facing a critical shortage of drivers at the moment – a problem that seems likely only to continue. One of the big savings, however, is more likely to be in reduced fuel costs, emissions and (especially with fully autonomous vehicles) the potential for 24hr utilisation of vehicles.

Further, autonomous vehicles will not operate in isolation, remaining in regular contact with their surroundings and the internet. This means fleet operating systems will be in constant communication with their vehicles, allowing more accurate tracking, adaptive planning and allocation of resources, scheduling and routing in order to get the competitive edge in the marketplace.

This is the pull, but there will also be push from external sources. As in the car industry, where the likes of Tesla, Google and Uber are creating waves, autonomous technology will likely bring new players into the freight and logistics market, who see the potential benefits of operating with this new technology. As in the car industry, these start-ups will believe they can compete with existing businesses by offering a new business model based around connected and autonomous vehicles. The wider industry will likely be forced to follow suit if they do not take the lead early on.

Regulation will also play a part as policy makers begin to see the potential of connected and autonomous technology to help manage and reduce pollution –  both at an international, national and local level. The safety argument (over 90% of road accidents are caused by human error) will also be increasingly difficult to ignore as the technology matures.

The bigger picture

Whilst road vehicles are obviously highlighted by recent developments in autonomous car technology, the logistics industry will likely see a big impact across the sector. For instance, autonomous freight trains could play a part – being technologically, at least, much easier to implement due to the controlled and limited environment in which they operate.  The idea of autonomy is being explored in maritime operations as well, where the huge costs of running cargo ships and managing port operations is a prime area for new technologies which increase efficiencies, productivity and utilisation.

Last mile delivery is another area where autonomy will likely have a big impact. Amazon is leading the charge towards autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) delivery systems and businesses are exploring the use of robots to make localised deliveries. Meanwhile even at the level of the warehouse automated technologies are already being trialled.

My colleague Dr Andrew Traill is a Principal Technologist on Freight and Logistics at the TSC and believes companies need to keep themselves up to speed with emerging technology:

“The prevailing view in the freight sector is that innovations like autonomous vehicles are a long way off.” Said Traill. “Even accounting for the undoubted number of barriers and obstacles in its path, significant change is, I believe, just around the corner. You ought to be aware and mindful of the emerging technology and ready to respond, adapt and adopt. You should consider also your business model and be prepared to modify or even ditch it for one that fits the new challenges and opportunities which autonomy will create.

New players who understand the technology and opportunities to exploit it will, undoubtedly, enter the market; what you think today will not change in the business of logistics, will change as new entrants turn our thinking on its head. A potential catalyst for this could be developments elsewhere, such as smart city development, electrification and zero emission zones. Autonomous, electric vehicles are in a prime position to exploit these. Those ready for change and embracing change will be best placed to profit from it and build a sustainable business.”    

Looking ahead, Andrew can see autonomy moving far beyond individual vehicles and combining with advances in areas like Artificial Intelligence to create completely new business models:

“In the long term it is the connected part of autonomous vehicles that will have the biggest impact. This will allow all parts of the logistics operation to work as an integral part of the supply chain: cargo ships will be connected directly to port infrastructure, as too will rail and road services; and all connected to each other and importantly to factories, depots, to warehouse management systems, retailers’ and wholesalers’ systems. Decision making itself will become more automated. Combine Artificial Intelligence with connectivity, we can look to a future where the whole supply chain is an automated, digitalised, autonomous system, adjusting volumes, routes and schedules in response to events, pressures and demands, from the global level to the local. Such systems will be able to operate at optimum efficiency for any given situation.

More agile policy making, regulations and land use planning will be needed to facilitate this and there are huge considerations around the sharing and accessibility of data which will need to be addressed. However, a surprising number of the components necessary to achieve a truly efficient automated supply chain are beginning to emerge and those planning long term business strategies would do well to take heed.”

This article was originally published in Logistics and Transport Focus  magazine.

Cookies on Catapult explained

To comply with EU directives we now provide detailed information about the cookies we use. To find out more about cookies on this site, what they do and how to remove them, see our information about cookies. Click OK to continue using this site.