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Taking the Dude Out of the Supply Chain

Uber founder and former CEO Travis Kalanick described plans to “get rid of the dude in the car” in 2014, when the ride-sharing company disclosed it was developing driverless fleets. But Kalanick’s vision of eliminating human drivers has much larger ramifications than just the idea of removing human drivers from Uber cars to save money. Instead, supply chain logistics is on the dawn of a not-so-distant era, as robotics and artificial intelligence replace humans for the delivery and transport of goods across the supply chain.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Autonomous shipping is not a moonshot. Self-piloting vehicles and drones are about to emerge beyond the prototype stage, and for some applications, only need the greenlight from regulatory bodies before commercial rollout begins. Here are three ways driverless trucks, pilotless ships, and drones are expected to have radical effects on the supply chain in the very near future.

Robot truck drivers take to the open roads

Driverless truck deliveries are expected to begin in the near future, but the jury remains out when regulatory bodies in the U.S., Asia, and Europe will make them legal to operate commercially. Like in the car industry, completely driverless trucks are categorized by the SAE International standard body as Level 4, meaning they pilot themselves from point A to B with no intervention from a human driver. Conversely, Level 3 cars and trucks are defined as vehicles that can self-pilot themselves, but the driver must be present and able to take back the wheel within a certain amount of time when prompted.

The consensus among OEMS and suppliers is that fleets will begin to deploy Level 4 commercial trucks after three years from now. Backlash by concerned and vocalized union representatives about the potential for machines to take truckers’ jobs has likely influenced their relative conservative estimate about driverless trucks’ rollout. 

Some analysts and observers, however, are more bullish about the rollout schedule of commercial trucks, especially versus that of cars. This is because it is simpler to develop AI-controlled vehicles for highway driving conditions, especially for long distances, compared to city driving, replete with stoplights, turn signals, jaywalking pedestrians, bikes darting through traffic, and other urban driving hazards.

According to Richard Bishop, president of Bishop Consulting, trucks with Level 4 self-driving capabilities could see commercial rollout within two years.

“The technology to accomplish Level 4 is rapidly maturing for deployments in highly constrained environments, such as short repetitive runs between a rail yard and a truck fleet terminal on roads with minimal personal vehicle traffic,” Bishop told EBN. “But the business case driving investment in truck automation startups is highway ‘exit to exit’ driverless, with transfer yards to allow these vehicles to hand off their trailers to human driven trucks for last-mile delivery.  These ops would likely be constrained to remote stretches of highway, operating at times when regular traffic is minimal.”  

Several OEMs and startups have debuted working prototypes of commercial vehicles. Daimler Trucks North America unveiled its semi-autonomous Inspiration concept truck in 2015. The Volvo Group, the parent company of Volvo Trucks, has begun testing a driverless garbage truck for urban environments, which is more challenging to develop than prototypes for highway conditions, as described above.

Photo courtesy: Volvo Group

Photo courtesy: Volvo Group

Tesla unveiled an all-electric truck prototype in November, which it said will offer full autonomy in parallel with its driverless car ambitions. The company did not offer more specifics.  Uber, which reached a legal settlement in February with Waymo for its use of driverless tech procured from one of its engineers and former Google employee Anthony Levandowski, says it is on track with the development of driverless trucks, despite its recent troubles. Waymo and Embark also say they have working prototypes of commercial vehicles.

Last-mile drones

Several companies have begun testing last-mile deliveries to retail customers with drones, underscoring how the technology is ready, pending concerns about privacy, safety, and other considerations before drones become legal to commercially operate for deliveries.

Among the large-scale announcements, Amazon has begun testing drone deliveries to remote rural areas and suburbs in the UK, after the program ran into legal stumbling blocks in the U.S. The ultimate goal, Amazon says, is to rely on drones to deliver items to customers within 30 minutes of purchase. China’s second-largest online retailer JD.com has begun creating 150 drone launch sites for drone deliveries to locations in rural, hard-to-reach places in the province of Sichuan, after the company began testing drones for deliveries of purchases to customers in other rural areas in China 2016. Deutsche Post DHL, Google, and UPS have also begun to test delivery services with drones.

Photo courtesy: Deutsche Post DHL

Photo courtesy: Deutsche Post DHL

However, drones are not without their issues. In addition to privacy concerns about the potential misuse of drones, they pose risks to airplanes when operated within flight paths and other safety concerns.

With the intention of not impeding their commercial development, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines drafted in 2016 allowed for commercial interests to petition the FAA to test drones for out-of-site deliveries and other purposes. But otherwise, without special FAA permission, the mandate requires drones to remain within eyesight, maintain an altitude of below 400 meters, remain more than five miles from airports, and other restrictions. 

In February, a study lead by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory published in Nature Communications showed delivery drones could cut emissions by replacing commercial delivery trucks —but not in all circumstances. A drone used do to deliver large payloads or operated from warehouses where a high percentage of electricity is derived from fossil fuels would generate a greater amount of carbon emissions than commercial truck deliveries would in those zones. 

However, in states such as California where electricity is produced using relatively lower amounts of fossil fuel sources than in other states, drones would cut emissions significantly versus trucks. Meanwhile, the technology, according to Google, Amazon, Deutsche Post DHL, and other firms is ready, while drones’ commercial operation, in the U.S. at least, awaits FAA approval. 

Big ship, no crew or captain  

Unmanned commercial boat fleets, especially when operated on battery power, will offer significant cost and energy savings, without crews on board to house and feed. While removing the source of inspiration for literary characters such as Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and Wolf Larsen in Sea Wolf, pilotless and crewless boats will also save lives by no longer subjecting workers to often dangerous working conditions at sea.

To that end, Norway-based Yara International ASA is set to launch the world’s first pilotless and crewless ship by end of next year. Separately, the maritime branch of Rolls-Royce created a division for autonomous shipping development and formed an AI partnership with Google this year.

Photo courtesy: Yara International ASA

Photo courtesy: Yara International ASA

Yara’s Birkeland autonomous commercial ship will initially ship fertilizer between ports in Norway. Norwegian industrial giant Kongsberg Gruppen will build and operate the ship for Yara, which says it is the “Tesla of the seas.” 

Not everybody is as sanguine about pilotless and crewless ships. The CEO of A.P. Moller-Maersk A/S, the world largest shipping company, told Bloomberg News in February he did not expect large commercial ships to become fully autonomous in his lifetime. He cited concerns about pilotless ships’ economic viability, among other things, as reasons why he was not optimistic about the prospects of their commercial rollout in the near future.

But given that over 90% of all goods worldwide are transported by ship at some point in their delivery cycles, even a small fleet of unmanned shipping vessels would account for significant shipping volumes. Ethical considerations aside about what to do about the removal of 1.1 billion jobs worldwide, and over 100 million human jobs in the U.S. that machines could replace, robotically controlled shipping is expected to shakeup the supply chain on a scale unseen since the industrial revolution. The main premise behind this assumption is that machine-taught AI is just better and much, much cheaper at performing many logistics-related and other tasks. Commercial trucking will likely see largescale rollout first, followed by drones and ships, as robots take their place in the delivery supply chain — or in the words of former Uber CEO Kalanick, help to “get rid of the dude” in the vehicle.

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