Autonomous Vehicles Hold More Near-Term Promise for the Supply Chain Than the Road

In an episode of HBO’s Silicon Valley, timid number-cruncher Jared is trapped in a driverless automobile that goes awry. Instead of taking Jared home, the car thinks it is delivering someone to an artificial island that weird billionaire and venture capitalist Peter Gregory is building in the Pacific Ocean. After informing Jared that it will be 4,126 miles, or 104 hours, to his destination, the car drives into a shipping container that is delivered by ocean freighter to the island. When the container is finally opened, a blinking Jared stumbles out and finds himself in the midst of a hive of autonomous forklifts, small trucks, and robots busily moving goods for construction. There are no humans in sight, only driverless machines.

The episode captures both the potential danger and the promise of autonomous vehicles. While the driverless car has the “wow” factor, it's unlikely to be commonplace soon. What happened to Jared is impossible, since driverless cars typically have an emergency stop button. However, there are still plenty of issues surrounding the safety of these vehicles, at least when they are transporting people.

But what if the vehicles don't carry human beings? What if they are used in places where there are no humans, like on Gregory's island or, better still, in electronics distribution centers? In fact, the consulting group Gartner says that self-driving vehicles could completely reshape transportation, logistics, distribution and supply chain management. “This trend is far more than a matter of eye-catching, futuristic devices like Google's driverless cars, Jeff Bezos' aerial delivery drones and Kiva Systems' smart warehouse robots,” David Cearley, vice president and Gartner Fellow, said at a symposium last fall, according to a report by Network World. “Autonomous vehicles will disrupt the business dynamics of at least one-third of the industries in the developed world.”

Autonomous vehicles are among the seven technologies that will influence the future of materials handling, according to an article by Lew Manci, vice president of engineering at Crown Equipment Corporation, which builds material handling equipment. In the article, published in a recent issue of Supply Chain Quarterly, Manci notes that the automated machines used in warehouses today are typically automatic guided vehicles (AGV), which follow pre-programmed routes. When an AGV runs up against an obstacle, it “stops in its tracks,” writes Manci, causing congestion and disruption, a problem that has limited the use of AGVs. Truly autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, would respond to their environment and make their own decisions. Rather than stop at an obstacle, they would reroute themselves without human intervention.

All the attention and R&D that's going into autonomous cars is bound to help manufacturers of industrial vehicles, and signs of that are just starting to emerge. Farm equipment makers are developing driverless tractors, for example, according to a recent Fortune article.

While autonomous cars hold great promise, the nearest term benefit of the technology may be in the warehouse, rather than on our highways.

Are you using autonomous vehicles in your supply chain? Let us know in the comments section below.

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