Autonomous Trucking

A growing narrative these days reflects a belief that realizing the autonomous driving vision is far off in the future. It’s harder than people think, and many experts believe reaching level five autonomy is next to impossible. Those beliefs stem from the complexity of the human mind, and the intuition we use in decision making. Yet quietly, Autonomous Trucking is on a path towards realization by the middle of this decade. Starting in the southern region of the U.S., autonomous trucks are logging miles. Southern states like Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico, provide the right conditions for early phase testing: bad weather is less common, favorable regulation, and strong highway infrastructure.

In a recent article, article, Steve Banker describes this emerging autonomous truck revolution as right around the corner, and likely focused on the middle mile.

Operating in the middle mile simplifies the technological challenges. It is simpler to operate an autonomous truck on an interstate than the first and last miles. Navigation is also simpler because the trucks will move on defined routes that have been pre-mapped in a manner that the truck computer understands. Further, the middle mile offers fewer “edge cases.”

Steve Banker – The Autonomous Truck Revolution Is Right Around The Corner

This middle mile scenario leverages a transfer hub model as part of an autonomous freight network. The first mile, representing the distance traveled between an origin, like a warehouse, and the highway, would be handled by a human driver. As would the last mile, the distance between a highway exit and a destination site – a factory, warehouse, or store for example. As described in this Bloomberg article via Ira Boudway, TuSimple, Waymo, and Aurora are all start-ups and leaders in this space. TuSimple, one of those startups, has embraced the transfer hub model and describes it as an autonomous freight network in the video below. This represents the early days of what economist Jeremy Rifkin describes as a logistics Internet.

TuSimple is offering freight as a service to shippers and carriers. A customer would purchase TuSimple’s fully autonomous semi-trucks directly from a semi-truck manufacturer. The customer would then pay $0.35 a mile for access to the right to move freight on the company’s autonomous freight network. This freight capacity would come at a 10%-15% discount to the prevailing cost to move freight.

Steve Banker – The Autonomous Truck Revolution Is Right Around The Corner

As described by the quote, new business models are emerging along side the driverless phenomenon; in this case, freight-as-a-service. This article via Jon Wertheim explores the path and possible implications of this scenario, for example, the impact to truck drivers. However, severe driver shortages – specifically in the long-haul middle mile – are a problem expected to get worse as society continues to age in what some call the turbulent twenties. Autonomous trucks solve that growing challenge. The transfer hub model keeps human drivers in the mix, as they handle the first and last miles, as well as the edge cases difficult for autonomous technology to handle today. Economically however, it is not as good as a full end-to-end driverless model with remote oversight that delivers the most value but represents the most complexity and risk. Timing is an obvious question asked by leaders in the logistics space. Current forecasts would indicate that by the end of this decade, logistics will have been transformed.

Autonomous trucking is but one of several scenarios likely to transform logistics. Localizing production via innovations like vertical farming and additive manufacturing are examples of other transformative scenarios.

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