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November 2, 2019

The Future World of Autonomous Vehicles

By Mark Petersen, Vice President of C.H. Robinson

Autonomous vehicles are making headlines. Whether for personal or commercial use, there’s a lot of speculation about what the future will bring. However, autonomy isn’t all or nothing. As shown in the graphic below, it’s a progressive continuum with five distinct levels of capabilities.

Not all levels of automation are equal

As you might have noticed, there’s a significant gap between level three—having your eyes off the road but at the ready—and levels four and five. Both four and five are completely self-driving, but level four still requires a human present while five involves no human driver. Many agree, levels one through three are achievable on a broad scale in the next five years. Levels four and five are likely 10 or more years away.

Autonomy in food transportation today

Based on these five levels, we are still on level one when it comes to moving food via trucks. Using this interpretation of autonomy, there simply hasn’t been a real impact today.

When you think about the planting, growing, and harvesting of food, tractors and other agricultural field equipment are far more automated than highway vehicles. That’s not to say food transportation is without any technology or automation.

  • Long-haul autonomy

    In the long-haul foods space, platooning, or the grouping of vehicles, is one technology that stands out as effective and the most likely to soon appear on a broad scale. Platooning uses truck-to-truck communication, advanced sensing technology, and data to improve the safety and efficiency of trucks.

    When engaged, drivers operate as usual while wireless technology links each vehicle; a forward-looking radar sensor can sense obstacles ahead and automatically apply brakes in multiple trucks faster than humans can. Platooning allows trucks to travel closer together than manual driving. The shorter gap between trucks positively alters aerodynamics, reduces wind resistance, and results in fuel savings for these trucks.

    As self-driving capabilities in trucks increase, so do the savings. It’s estimated that removing one driver from one truck (partial autonomy) plus platooning can lead to 15 percent savings per mile, and removing drivers from both trucks (complete autonomy) plus platooning could lead to 40 percent cost savings per mile.

  • Last mile autonomy

    From a curbside pickup to meal delivery, there are a number of automated ways to deliver food to consumers’ doors.

    When delivering to consumers, people trust others to handle and pick their food. This has been a slow shift as some struggle with food safety or proper selection of ripeness in the case of produce. With more comfort delegating food orders, more doors for automation are possible. In this space, we won’t be limited to autonomous vehicles but could soon see drones and other robotic delivery mechanisms in use.

    One thing is for certain, as more automation enters our industry, we can expect more accurate tracking and real-time visibility throughout a shipment’s life.

Expect an impact on infrastructure and regulations

The physical structures that support the movement of goods must adjust for automation. Parking facilities and loading docks are just one example. If platooning becomes more common with only one driver for multiple trucks, how do multiple trucks in a convoy unload at a dock? Is there enough space? Are drive-through loading locations going to be more like rail yards? These are only some of the unanswered questions we’ll need to resolve.

Regulations have potential to change too, as fully autonomous vehicles won’t have a driver requiring sleep, hours of service (HOS) may need to take that into consideration. More autonomous vehicles on the road could also create a culture of more law-abiding drivers. From speed limits to using blinkers, there’s no human element to refute a law.

Looking to the future of automation

Of course automation could also increase efficiency in labor for the food industry as well. For example, finding labor to pick fresh produce can be challenging; if there’s a way to combine machine learning with autonomous vehicles, we may overcome this challenge as well.

As you can see, there are many questions still to resolve before food transportation becomes fully autonomous. The Western Growers Transportation Program’s exclusive provider, C.H. Robinson, has both the people you can rely on and technology built by and for supply chain experts that improves your efficiency and performance. This balance of deep expertise and tailored, market-leading solutions will be critically important as our world undergoes so many changes. To learn more, visit