Autonomous Tech: How the supply chain is going hands-free

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van

Mercedes-Benz Vision Van

On a gray, blustery, early-April day this year, a convoy of about a dozen 18-wheel, long-haul trucks pulled into a port facility in Rotterdam and parked in neat rows. It’s a seemingly unremarkable event that happens thousands of times a day at the bustling Dutch seaport, yet these particular trucks were greeted with a gaggle of reporters while a live band played festive music in the chilly air.

The trucks themselves also looked fairly normal from the outside, but they were no ordinary vehicles. They were all participants in a continent-wide event, called the European Truck Platooning Challenge, which brought trucks of all makes from across Europe – some travelling more than 2,000 kilometers – to demonstrate cutting-edge driverless technology. While each truck carried a trained, licensed driver, the human element barely laid a hand on the wheel, leaving the actual driving to computers and arrays of sensors that could pinpoint the trucks’ location and all other vehicles in the vicinity – all automatically.

The project is one of several worldwide proof-of-concept demonstrations that showcase what may become the most significant airfreight disruptors of the 21st century: the driverless, pilotless vehicles that one day – some say inevitably – will dominate freight lanes, on land and in the sky.

Robotic vehicles years ago took over the storage and retrieval duties of most modern warehouses. Now the technology is slowly moving out of the yard and onto the open highways and air corridors. In most cases, the technology has advanced well past our ability to draft regulations about its use in the real world, so the industry must make do with pilot projects, by the likes of DHL, Amazon, Google, Uber, Tesla and others.

But as Europe’s platooning challenge indicates, logistics firms are planning ahead for a near future in which autonomous trucks, working together or separately with pilotless drone aircraft, will become the norm for surface and airfreight transport – perhaps sooner than you think.

For those who assume that driverless trucks won’t have much effect on airfreight forwarding, Ryan Peterson, CEO of online forwarding company Flexport had this to say. “A driverless truck can drive 24 hours per day instead of 11 hours allowed, by law, today. That will make trucking more attractive than airfreight for some long-haul, next-day delivery moves.”

Since labor represents about 26 percent of all trucking cots, according to the Truck Driver Institute, fully autonomous trucks could deliver goods in about half the time as conventional trucks for just three quarters of the cost. Such a disruptive technology could have profound consequences on the forwarding and logistics industries – not only in fuel savings, cost reductions and reliability but in the labor force and the training required. 

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