Although the laws and regulations have not been ironed out yet, the industry is making great strides in automated automobiles.
Over a million miles with no at-fault accidents: that’s the impressive record recently set by Google’s fleet of self-driving cars. Never growing tired or distracted, robotic drivers clearly have a lot to offer. Instead of making their mass-market debut behind the wheels of passenger vehicles, though, it seems increasingly likely that the computerised pilots will take control of the mobile links of supply chains in Australia and the rest of the world.
Heavyweight Autopilots on the Highways of the Near Future
Trucking industry stalwart Freightliner recently made headlines with the news that its Inspiration selfdriving truck program had been licensed for testing on public highways in Nevada. According to the NHTSA, large trucks are involved in more than a third of a million accidents on American highways every year, with many of these collisions ultimately owing to driver fatigue or inattention.
“It never gets tired. It’s always 100 per cent and sharp. It’s never angry; it’s never distracted”, noted Dr. Wolfgang Bernhard of Freightliner parent company Daimler AG, “So this is a much safer system”.
Although computers have proven they are amply capable of the fast reactions necessary for safe city driving, they excel even more at highway travel. With unflagging stamina and focus, they make safer, more routine work of traversing distances that would threaten to put human drivers to sleep.
Autonomous, computerized driving systems don’t just focus more intently than humans do. They also cover ground more efficiently, packing together into aerodynamic highway trains that produce a “measured fuel consumption reduction [of] about 21 per cent” according to the authors of one German study. Couple that with the fact that these automated drivers will be perfectly capable of staying at the wheel around the clock, and even conservative sources forecast reductions in overall long-haul costs of 40 per cent or more.
Increasing Acceptance in Controlled, Private Logistical Environments
Of course, there is plenty of ground to be covered before supply-chain line-hauling and last-mile delivery succumb to autonomous vehicles. The influential Vienna Convention on Road Traffic only recently made room for the possibility with the addition of a May 2014 amendment that still requires human overseers.
If a top-down global overhaul of these regulations seems unlikely at the moment, the reality is that plenty of progress is already being made from the other end. A recent report by global shipping giant DHL pointed out that warehousing operations worldwide are increasingly reliant on autonomous forklifts and the like. In these controlled, predictable environments, important operational and technological advancements are cropping up that will allow for further progress throughout the rest of the supply chain.
For example, the autonomous elements of the KARIS PRO system now under development in Germany, coordinate to such a degree that they form a “flexible conveyor system” when and where it is needed. KNAPP’s Open Shuttle technology autonomously navigates through complex, localscale transport networks, responding “dynamically to any obstacle it encounters in the warehouse.”
The next frontier, naturally enough, and one that is now being actively explored, is the still-controlled space that lies just outside the warehouse. Freight terminals, airports, and harbor-side yards present a whole slew of new challenges, but those too are being overcome and increasingly pointing the way to the world’s public thoroughfares, as a result.
Considered one of the most advanced of its kind, Germany’s Harbor Container Terminal Altenwerder is equipped with nearly 20,000 transponders that allow a fleet of more than 80 driverless transports to navigate it quickly and safely. A research project known as SaLsa makes use of a similarly transponder-heavy focus to guide robotic forklifts through even busier, tighter logistical environments, with both ventures hinting at a future where the roads and highways of countries like Australia are similarly well-endowed with sensors.
Where Australia Stands in the Rush toward the Driverless Supply Chain Whilst Australia is not the most prominent contemporary adopter of autonomous supply-chain technology, it can boast of some major moves of related sorts. Representing one of the world’s largest single investments into autonomous driving, Australia’s Rio Tinto mine also remains one of the biggest success stories with its fleet of computer-piloted heavy haulers.
Like the warehousing and cargo-yard innovations that are automating movement through the most-confined environs of the supply chain, this initiative by Rio Tinto centers on controlled, private spaces. However, Australia will need to loosen their existing regulations before the freer, public-facing side of the world of logistics can take advantage of what autonomous vehicles will have to offer.
There are signs that this is already happening, though. Under pressure from the Royal Automobile Association of South Australia, for example, that state recently approved the first major Australian trials of passenger cars equipped with automated driving technology. With a bit of progress still to be made before driverless vehicles are ready to take over the rest of the supply chain, there is good reason to think that government in Australia will open the way when the time comes.