CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly
March 31, 2020

Smart driving

Autonomous trucks continue their development and will soon be on a highway near you.

Research on automated vehicle technologies is continuing at a brisk pace, and we could see deployments sooner than we had once expected.

A panel at the Council of Supply Chain Management Professionals' (CSCMP) EDGE conference last September discussed the progress being made on autonomous truck technology. Among other examples, panelists cited TuSimple, a San Diego, California-based automated truck company that is currently doing regular runs with autonomous vehicles between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona. A driver is behind the wheel ready to take control if needed, but the trucks drive themselves from depot to depot automatically. In a 1,000-mile autonomous run through Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, the truck maneuvered successfully through stormy conditions and high winds.

Direct, repeatable highway routes are the sweet spot for autonomous trucks. In an age of driver shortages, when 90,000 new drivers are needed each year, it's better to deploy that labor where needed most, such as routes with frequent delivery stops. Let the automated vehicles carry the long-haul loads.

Safety will also drive a lot of the decisions around autonomous vehicles. While some fear that trucks driving themselves may not be safe, the opposite is true. The safety features already deployed on the trucks, such as automatic braking, have reduced rear-end truck collisions by 70%.

Some 40,000 traffic deaths occur in the U.S. each year, 94% of which are caused by driver error. Trucks are responsible for less than 10% of those deaths. Autonomous vehicles will eliminate the human errors.

Of course, while these trucks can already navigate safely under normal circumstances, they will have to prove they can also do it under abnormal conditions. Researchers in Finland are working on systems that will allow trucks to navigate ice- and snow-covered roads, where road markings are obscured.

In my own state of Pennsylvania, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced an $8.4 million four-year program to study how self-driving vehicles can safely navigate work zones. Construction areas can be dangerous places, with accidents in these zones killing more than 4,700 Americans annually. The study will look at systems that allow vehicles to communicate directly with work-zone equipment and more easily recognize orange construction barrels and lane markings on uneven surfaces.

While the CSCMP panel said it will take about 10 years before we see widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles, the technology to make it happen should be ready within the next five to seven years.

David Maloney is editorial director of CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly.

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