Vehicles that drive themselves? What used to seem like science fiction is now becoming a reality. Autonomous and self-driving cars so far have been thought of as useful for mapping, taxis and commuting, however, the technology has huge implications in the transportation industry.
Autonomous and self-driving cars are not the same. Autonomous cars are vehicles that we are currently accustomed to. They have a steering wheel, gas/brake pedals, gear shift, etc. Some aspects of autonomy are already in the vehicles available today including self-parking, automated braking and adaptive cruise control. Full autonomy would allow a driver to release the steering wheel and other vehicle inputs and allow the vehicle to take over like an advanced auto-pilot.
Self-Driving cars are the next iteration and fully automated. The steering wheel, pedals, etc. are all gone. There are no redundant vehicle inputs. The vehicle controls the driving experience through the same integration of radar, sensor and GPS systems developed in autonomous vehicles. The destination would be given via a user interface, the route would be determined by live traffic congestion and suggested routes.
Google has been in the news quite often for their Self-Driving Car Project and rightfully so. They have logged over 1.5 million autonomous car miles. Their self-driving cars are currently out on public streets in California, Texas and Washington. Google’s fleet of 23 retrofitted Lexus SUVs and 33 prototypes log 10,000 to 15,000 autonomous miles per week.
Automakers actually lead in autonomous car patent filings with Toyota being the global leader according to a recent report by Thomson Reuters. Other companies leading the patent race are Denso, Bosch, Hyundai and General Motors. Google isn’t even in the top 10 patent filers despite the public attention they received.
So, where is all of this headed? How does this affect the transportation industry? Imagine autonomous semi-trailer trucks. Long haul trucking could be made safer by utilizing this technology to guard against driver fatigue. In fact, one of these trucks is already in existence and licensed in Nevada. These trucks can work together to follow each other at a distance a normal truck driver would feel unsafe in order to create a wind tunnel for maximum fuel efficiency.
Now, imagine self-driving semi-trailer trucks or a combination of self-driving and autonomous trucks. A future “truck driver” would monitor multiple trucks remotely from a console. Actual truck drivers would only be used as truck pilots (similar to large ships) to navigate autonomous self-driving trucks into and out of difficult to navigate warehouse locations. Field technicians would have territories for self-driving truck breakdowns and maintenance alerts. Containers could be loaded onto semi-trailers in designated areas with self-driving trucks to pick up and deliver to a terminal all on its own. An online system could be created and a queuing structure for these trucks similar to Lyft or Uber. The potential is mind boggling as our streets and highways become automated like a giant manufacturing plant.
This technology certainly comes with its caveats and questions though. Cybersecurity, insurance requirements, liability, connectivity and terrorism just to name a few. The systems on these vehicles would absolutely have to be secure. Otherwise, the vehicles could be hacked and driven somewhere it’s not supposed to be; whether that’s to an erroneous unloading facility or straight through a building. If a self-driving vehicle does have an at-fault accident, who is liable? The technology manufacturer or the owner of the vehicle?
Full use of autonomous and self-driving technology may not happen for many years to the extent described here. However, with truck driver shortages becoming ever more prevalent, this technology may be here sooner rather than later. Does it even stop with trucks? What are the implications of this technology as it applies to other modes of transportation such as forklifts, cranes, ships, trains or even airplanes?
Written by TCT Boardmember Daniel McCabe