The autonomous driving future is no longer so distant on the horizon; in fact, in many industries, self-driving vehicles have long been knocking on our door. This is likely good news for most people, who will enjoy lower transportation costs and greater accessibility overall — but it is incredibly daunting for anyone with business ties within transportation.
When it comes to the shipping industry, businesses are most often thrill at the idea of transitioning to an autonomous fleet, but few truly understand what that transition would mean. In truth, drivers do more than pilot the vehicle; they also have the knowledge, skill and experience to drive safely in nearly all situations, protecting not just themselves and the vehicle but also the freight in the trailer. As one trucker out of Florida says:
“I could be driving and as a human being I can see the cars coming across in front of me, and I know how to react, whether I brake slowly or brake hard or whatever. The computer just measures that there is a car that came out in front of you, and guess what it does? It slams on the brakes. If I am going downhill, that is 80,000 pounds. If I am going downhill in the rain or the snow, guess what? I am going for a ride.”
For all of human history, traders have been forced to trust that those transporting their goods would do so competently and safely — but now, businesses can choose to outsource the job to robots. Is that a good idea?
How Robot Trucks Work Today
First, it’s important to note that robot trucks are in the future, but they won’t be rolling out for commercial or private use within the next year or two. Though self-driving vehicles have been tested extensively, they aren’t by any means ready for the roads — and the roads aren’t ready for them, either. Prior to autonomous vehicles’ widespread application, lawmakers need to draft legislation regarding when, how and for what self-driving automobiles may be used, to protect passengers, corporate fleet owners, other drivers and more.
However, even more significantly, robot trucks simply can’t yet go the distance that most fleet managers need them to. As yet, autonomous vehicles rely extensively on pre-generated maps of their surroundings to navigate, and each car can only carry a limited amount of geographic data onboard as it drives. Typically, that means self-driving vehicles are bounded in relatively small territories; the longest self-driving trip to date was performed by an Uber truck, which journeyed a mere 120 miles. For fleet managers who operate within a small geographic region, like a city, this isn’t an issue, but because most fleet managers in shipping run larger operations, this means that computers simply aren’t feasible as driver replacements right now.
What’s more, a robot driver simply can’t perform all the duties currently entrusted to a human driver. As fleet managers know, drivers review and pack loads, document conditions of contents, guard against theft, check trucks for problems, listen and look for signs of failure and administer fuel. There simply aren’t viable replacements for all of these services — but there are some.
Tools to Make Robot Trucks Better
Just because robot trucks aren’t around the next corner doesn’t mean shipping companies can’t start preparing with supplementary technology now. By integrating this technology sooner, fleet managers can become familiar with it before transitioning to a fully autonomous fleet. Thus, fleet managers can identify what systems work and what don’t well before the situation stridently demands it.
- GPS tools. Every sane fleet already uses some sort of GPS tool for navigation or tracking, but it might be time to upgrade from simple, free options like Google Maps to GPS tools that provide more features to fleet managers and trucks. For instance, Trucker Path Pro offers up-to-date fuel prices, real-time road conditions, locations of truck stops and weigh stations and more.
- Driver monitoring. Cameras in the cockpit as well as sensors to check acceleration, braking, direction and time give managers more insight into driver behavior and help everyone stay safer on the road. These same devices will help managers understand how robots pilot vehicles without deploying a human driver to accompany the autonomous truck.
- Damage indicators. Tools amongst and within freight can provide accurate information regarding package handling. Higher-quality impact monitors can even record where and when damage to the package took place, so managers can understand potentially dangerous robot driving habits.
Why Most Orgs Should Stick With Drivers (for Now)
Human drivers tend to have the experience and capability that robots currently lack. Over time, autonomous vehicles may improve, and systems may develop that robot shipping becomes a realistic solution. For now, while the technology is fascinating and exciting, it isn’t feasible for shipping companies of any size or scope thanks to substantial limitations in the technology and regulation. While preparing now for the autonomous future is wise, fleet managers and drivers alike have little reason to worry about the transition to robot trucks.