Could a Phased Autonomous Trucking Solution Be on the Horizon for 2019?

Phased Autonomous Trucking SolutionAs the calendar extends to 2019, a recently published report indicates that the integration of autonomous or self-driving trucks could be closer than expected. A new report published by logistics industry consultants McKinsey & Co. postulated a concept of a four-wave, phased-in solution that could possibly reduce operating costs for carriers, help to resolve the truck driver shortage and provide increased options for shippers.

Noted below, we’ll look at the four phases recommended by this group, along with some of the financial benefits that each offers those throughout the logistics network.

What are the Four Planned Phases of Autonomous Trucking?

The report filed by McKinsey noted four phases, or three actually with one including two individual steps.

Constrained Platooning of Trucks

The first suggested integration is currently in activation and is regarded as constrained platooning of trucks. This phase is separated into two steps; one of which is currently in activation. The first step is to digitally connect multiple trucks through automated braking via a dedicated radio frequency that permits the vehicles to communicate together. Essentially in the first step of this phase, one truck literally follows another, with the lead truck driven by an experienced driver and the following truck also driven by an experienced driver but being permitted to operate autonomously.

The second step in this phase is to remove the following driver from the equation. This method of self-driving truck activation would only occur on interstate highways between dedicated truck stops. In the report, it was estimated that this could realistically occur beginning in 2022 and activate through 2025. Peloton Technology is one company that is actively testing the platooning concept. Beyond the ability to expedite the AI integration and learning process, platooning also helps to reduce fuel usage, by improving aerodynamics between two trucks – which can save fleets a tremendous amount of money on fuel costs.

Constrained Autonomy

The second phase of the planned integration is constrained autonomy. With constrained autonomy, a driver is used for the pick-up and delivery portion of the supply chain operation, but the AI controls the operation of the vehicle between the two points. Essentially, the logistics company would set up a series of ‘truck stops’ where the driver would ‘drop off the truck’ after a load pick-up and ‘pick-up’ the truck for its final delivery. All driving in between the two points, of pick-up and delivery, would be operated by the self-driving trucks; once again operating only on interstate highways. This phase is expected to commence from 2025 through 2027.

Full Autonomy

The final step in this process is to permit full autonomous driving from pick-up to delivery. In this step, drivers are used initially to assist with the pick-up and deliveries and to take over the vehicle during emergency situations. Eventually, the drivers would be removed from the operation of the vehicles with many of these self-driving trucks running in a platooning method as described above. The McKinsey report predicts that within 7 to 10 years, single, unmanned trucks can operate up and down the interstates and other “geographically fenced” areas depending on weather and road conditions.

What are the Hurdles and Benefits?

One item that is needed to make this type of plan a reality is multiple changes in infrastructure such as electronic and Wi-Fi communication. The question that must be asked however is who would pay for these needed infrastructure improvements – municipalities or transportation companies? On the positive side, this suggested phase-in concept would save transportation and logistics providers millions of dollars (especially during the initial platooning phase). This could also help to resolve the glaring truck driver shortage, and possibly introduce a new type of autonomous driving vehicle operator. The American Trucking Associations says the industry is short more than 50,000 drivers, a number that could swell to 174,000 by 2026 if nothing is done to attract new drivers.

Autonomous trucks can save the logistics industry from several of the major issues it faces. From expediting the movement of freight to solving the truck driver shortage, it’s quite possible that the McKinsey & Co report is a realistic way of integrating this technology in a safe and efficient manner.