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Aeolus Perspectives 6th Edition: Driving without a driver: The autonomous trucks can play a game-changing


Truck on the road with green landscape

The self-driving of autonomous trucks (ATs) is one of the trends that can dramatically change the US logistics, impacting on both cost structure and efficiency. A McKinsey and Corporate report analyses the evolution of self-driving technology applying at trucking and the new possible scenario they will contribute to defining.

The idea is exciting, but also frightening. And, mostly, not all of us are yet fully ready to cross our own roads with self-driving vehicles. However, the future mobility sounds to be self-driving. And that is true both for cars and trucks. Rather. The autonomous trucks (AT) could maybe start to crowd the roads and the highways even before the self-driving cars. 

Telling the truth, the road to the fully autonomous truck driving, that means without any driver at the wheel, is still long quite enough. But less than we can imagine. According to McKinsey & Company, in a little more than ten years, the ATs should regularly travel on the North American routes. On last December, the global management-consulting firm published the report “Distraction or disruption? Autonomous trucks gain ground in US logistics” – partially built on the research “Route 2030: the fast track to the future of the commercial vehicle industry” by McKinsey Center for Future Mobility – that analyzes the evolution of the autonomous trucking and its possible impacts on the US logistics and road transport industry. Currently, trucking is deeply woven into the US national fabric, moving about two-thirds of all goods shipped in the country. Figures are predicted to increase more and more in the next few years as a consequence of e-commerce “boom”. Today, 1215% of all purchases in the United States are online. The same day service is already about 5% of all Amazon’s deliveries in the US and that figure might be 15% by 2025. 

The McKinsey report suggests a 4step timeline for the likely development of ATs. Each one of the four stages should increasingly lower the operators’ total costs of ownership (TCO). The first two phases are based on “platooning”, a technique for connecting wireless a convoy of trucks to a lead one. The first stage (2018-2020) provides two drivers platooning two trucks on the interstate highways and operating individually on the no-interstate highways (SAE Society of Automotive Engineers International calls this Level 3 autonomy, or “conditional automation”). In this stage, the saving of TCO could arrive to roughly 1% because of the advantages of aerodynamics and fuel efficiency. Then, an additional 10% could be reached in the second phase (2022-2025) thanks to the driverless platooning – on the interstate highways, one only driver in the lead truck controls the unmanned others following close behind. The third so-called “constrained autonomy” phase (SAE International calls this Level 4 autonomy) should take hold in 2025-2027. Unmanned autonomous trucks will travel on the whole interstate-highway system and geofenced areas (subject to weather and visibility conditions). This scenario will be empowered by developments in infrastructure such as the ability to communicate with traffic lights. In this phase, it is predicted to realize a total savings of about 20%. Finally, the fourth and last step, the full autonomy, with no human interaction at all, (Level 5 autonomy according to SAE International) is foreseen to be on the road by 2027. At this point, the ATs should provide a cut of the total TCO by even about 45%. 

The biggest chunk of savings will be on labor. Cut in fuel consumption will also not marginal at all. However, while the operational costs will go down, the prices for assets will probably up. Indeed, the higher capital cost of ATs must not be neglected. The autonomous vehicles are predicted to cost upwards of even 100,000 dollars each. And that could limit the first purchases only to the biggest trucking fleets. 

The higher cost could also introduce uncertainty about the value of aging vehicles and the depreciation of new ones. Then, the ATs’ substitution will come slowly. A large fleet of conventional trucks will still be necessary and quite a long time will need before the autonomous vehicles arrive into the secondary market. So, ATs could be a crucial element in the trucking and logistics competition. The trucking industry will be obviously the most affected sector by ATs' arrival. However, as reported in McKinsey’s analysis, they could strongly impact on other parts of the US logistics system. Warehouses and distribution centers could also experience really big changes. ATs could contribute to simplify processes, reduce costs and increase the efficiency in a more and more “time-stressing” scenario. Logistic operators will likely need to invest in infrastructure changes too, such as AT-compatible entrances and docks, road connections, new layouts and so on. Ports are also expected to face the change and also catch the opportunity. As already happens in the port of Melbourne, where the autonomous trucking technology is used to move containers from the dock to the yard extending the operativity of this last one. For rail, the autonomous trucking could become a fierce competitor and even also a valuable partner. A shift of volumes from rail to the road could be realized because of the lowering of trucking costs. On the other side though, railway companies can seamlessly take the chance of integrating themselves with ATs and so overcoming the handicap of their fixed footprints. Rail could dramatically increase speed and throughput as well as secure a critical and growing role in the overall ecosystem. 

Full autonomy is still quite enough long way off. It is a fairly long and not so easy road, that anyway seems to be worth to run.

Sources: “Distraction or disruption? Autonomous trucks gain ground in US logistics”, December 2018, McKinsey & Company; “Route 2030: The fast track to the future if the commercial vehicle industry”, September 2018, McKinsey Center for Future Mobility; Pictures from Freightliner

TAGS: Aeolus perspectives