How Self-Driving Vehicles May Change the Future of Logistics, Make the World Safer, & Ruin Lives

How Self-Driving Vehicles May Change the Future of Logistics, Make the World Safer, & Ruin Lives

Did you hear Google finally crashed?

Not the stock price, the search engine, or the brand. But for the first time in six years and more than 1.4 million miles of testing self-driving cars, one of Google’s autonomous vehicles was at fault in a Valentine’s day crash in Mountain View.

The crash made headlines worldwide and caused Google to issue a mea culpa of sorts noting it “bears some responsibility” for the car vs. bus crash in which one of Google’s test vehicles switched lanes to avoid sandbags that had been placed around a storm drain.

But it’s important to remember humans are responsible for 94% of all crashes:

Image via: NHTSA

In fact, traffic fatalities unexpectedly increased 9% in 2015 and autonomous car advocates argue allowing cars to drive themselves will likely reduce the number of fatal crashes, make the nation’s highways safer, and possibly reduce insurance premiums.

But definitively proving autonomous vehicles are better drivers than you and I is more difficult than it sounds. In fact, at the current test rate it could take twelve years to make an accurate conclusion, according to Nidhi Kalra at RAND Corporation:

“To prove with 95% confidence that a driverless car achieves, at least, this rate of reliability by driving them around to see, it would require they be driven 275 million miles without a fatality. With a fleet of 100 autonomous vehicles (larger than any known existing fleet) driving 24/7, it would take more than 12 years to drive these miles. But with 10,000 such vehicles, it would take just six weeks. Regulators will have to find other ways of estimating safety, but widespread deployment will be the true test. If safety standards are too strict, this might never happen.”

However, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), recently classified autonomous vehicle software as a “driver” which some view as tacit agency support for autonomous vehicles. Even more recently, the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee summoned Google and other autonomous car developers to Capitol Hill to testify and offer guidance regarding how the government can best promote the adoption of self-driving vehicles.

It means autonomous vehicles may be coming to a highway near you sooner than you think.

Autonomous Vehicle Concerns

Would you rather ride with a computer behind the wheel or your 98-year-old grandmother?

While the debate over autonomous vehicle safety won’t likely be settled in the near future, other concerns are being raised as features associated with self-driving cars increasingly become commonplace in vehicles. Similarly, these self-driving vehicle options are becoming more affordable by the day:

  • Honda now offers a $20,000 vehicle that can drive itself
  • The market for Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) which include Park Assistant Systems (PAS), Lane Departure Warning Systems (LDWS), and Blind Spot Detection Systems (BSD) has grown to more than $4.3 billion

Likewise, Tesla, General Motors, and Daimler are spending billions on autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles.

Image via: DHL

But don’t think you can kick back, relax, or even nap while your car does the driving for you. It’s not hard to find “self-driving fail” videos on Youtube:

While 40% of those polled recently said they’d travel in a car without a driver or any means of intervention, ethical concerns may be the biggest barrier to regulatory and public acceptance of autonomous vehicles. For instance, an autonomous vehicle might make a decision much different than that of a human in this scenario:

Image via: DHL

Liability is another concern that could impact vehicle price in that responsibility for accidents, so long as a driver can prove an autonomous vehicle was properly maintained, may transfer to the manufacturer in the event property or people are harmed in a crash involving an autonomous vehicle.

There are privacy concerns as well. Critics argue automakers already collect personal information belonging to drivers like location data and, according to the Government Accountability Office, have not implemented adequate consumer protections.

Since Google’s business model hinges on advertising, critics fear the company could use drivers’ personal information for marketing purposes if the company decides one day to sell autonomous vehicles or technology.

Unleashing Human Potential

You waste a lot of time.

So does anyone who regularly commutes to work and finds themselves stuck in non-productive traffic jams that impact the environment, economy, and our collective sanity. According to the 2015 Urban Mobility Scorecard, a study that investigates and measures the impact of traffic congestion in the U.S., traffic congestion levels have returned to pre-recession levels.

Some of the study’s more notable findings include:

  • Travel delays due to traffic congestion caused drivers to waste more than 3 billion gallons of fuel
  • Travelers were stuck in their cars for nearly 7 billion extra hours due to congestion – 42 hours per rush hour commuter
  • The economic impact nationwide is $160 billion, or $960 per commuter

Put another way, here’s a rough calculation of how much of your life is wasted sitting in traffic based on your commute:

Image via: Washington Post

By no means are autonomous vehicles a cure-all for our congestion problem, but self-driving vehicles could:

  • Allow us to be more productive while commuting or sitting in traffic
  • Eliminate the need for people to be behind the wheel and allow the robots to deal with congestion rather than people

The Washington Post provides a rough estimate on what avoiding congested commutes might mean for the economy:

“Consider the transformational effect this would have at the individual level, giving these folks two hours of their day back. And then multiply that two-hour time savings by the 250 work days in a typical year -- that's 500 extra hours a year. Multiply that by 3.6 million workers, and you come out to about 1.8 billion man-hours of potential productivity released back into the economy. That's the time-equivalent of 900,000 full-time jobs.”

The Future of Logistics

While it might be more fun to think about robots mowing our lawns, steering our farm tractors, or sweeping our floors, it may not be quite as enjoyable to discuss the impact autonomous vehicles may have on logistics, especially for those who work in warehouses and order fulfillment.

In fact, robots are already doing much of the work people once did in warehouses:

  • Self-driving vehicles that load, unload, and transport goods and can connect with other vehicles to form flexible conveyor systems
  • Self-driving vehicles that pick orders using vision guidance technology and can respond to human gestures
  • Self-driving forklifts that navigate via geo-guidance and move pallets
    Image via: DHL

    Outdoor logistics, that which takes place on public roadways, is much more challenging and an issue that could have a significant impact on humanity. However, outdoor logistics are already being transformed even if it’s out of sight for most. Right now, autonomous vehicles are working in yards, harbors, and airports to relieve congestion and improve safety.

    If similar levels of innovation that have transformed the insides of warehouses are also realized in outdoor logistics, it’s conceivable the entire supply chain may be reimagined thanks to autonomous vehicles that transport long haul freight, hand it off to last mile delivery vehicles, and potentially fulfill orders without the touch of a human hand.

    Long-Haul

    Mercedes-Benz says it’s self-driving semi-truck will not replace drivers but rather free them up to do other things inside truck cabins. The company also argues its next-generation truck will make long-haul transportation safer, cheaper, and better for the environment.

    Image via: DHL

    Likewise, eighteen wheelers like the one manufactured by Freightliner are being engineered to take control on the highway and keep a safe distance from vehicles. However, the Freightliner truck does not yet possess the capability to pass slower moving vehicles on its own. The truck will also alert the driver if he or she needs to take control of the vehicle in the event of bad weather or other situations that call for heightened situational awareness.

    Industry analyses suggest, at least for now, that autonomous technology will initially play a supporting role in long-haul transportation:

    “Autonomous technology can help drivers to react faster to oncoming dangers and calculate the safest maneuver, taking into account the truck’s current status and the driving conditions. This could drastically reduce the number and severity of accidents, and, therefore, self-driving vehicles have the potential to play a significant and useful role in reducing driver error and avoiding accidents.”

    Others describe the role of the trucker transitioning to one of a “first officer” who interacts with customers and steps in only when driving requires a more sophisticated touch. These analysts argue it’s fleet dispatchers whose jobs are at risk.

    However, keep in mind the U.S. is facing a truck driver shortage. The American Trucking Association suggests the industry is short 38,000 drivers today and expects the shortage to increase to 175,000 in the next decade:

    Image via: ATA

    With sharp declines in fuel prices, an aging workforce, and a lack of interest in the profession among women and minorities, the appeal of fully autonomous trucks shouldn’t come as a surprise especially when labor is the industry’s largest operational cost.

    Last Mile Delivery

    The first and last mile problem are age-old issues that, at times, prevent the promise of public transportation from being fulfilled. Transporting goods hundreds or thousands of miles by truck or plane is the easy part. Delivering them the last leg of the trip, especially in congested cities, is often the most complex part of the journey and requires substantial situational awareness.

    While recognizing and adapting to last mile complexities presents a major challenge for autonomous vehicles, DHL suggests it’s also an environment with one key advantage:

    “The last-mile environment typically presents a particular advantage for self-driving vehicles. In cities, traffic normally moves very slowly and in accordance with low speed limits. This of course is ideal for today’s self-driving vehicles as autonomous technology is best executed at low speeds, allowing driverless vehicles to identify, monitor, and navigate their environment accurately and react in an appropriate timeframe to any emergency.”

    It’s even possible, according to DHL, that fully automated self-driving parcels will one day deliver themselves to customers and remedy the last mile problem, at least for parcels, once and for all.

    Image via: DHL

    The idea may be closer to reality than many think.

    Domino’s Pizza is now testing an autonomous pizza delivery robot the company says has already successfully delivered an order. The robot blends military technology with the ability to keep drinks cold and pizzas warm and can deliver to customers in a 12-mile range who access their orders with a special code.

    Image via: ARS Technica

    BP: Beyond People

    The trucking industry says driverless trucks are “close to inevitable.” It means logistics and the supply chain are being positioned to benefit from all that technology has to offer while simultaneously losing the human touch that built them.

    The strange bedfellows being created from the hundreds of millions of dollars powering autonomous vehicle development and related partnerships certainly make the dream seem as if it were just inches from reality:

    • Some of the same investors backing Uber plan to invest $40 million from Uber’s expected IPO in the Hyperloop concept, which promises to ship people and freight between cities in tubes at nearly 800- miles an hour
    • General Motors & Lyft have forged a $500 million partnership to build an autonomous car network and recently announced a new rental service

    Uber has already said it’ll replace every driver it employs with autonomous vehicles. When asked about the impact such a decision would have on Uber’s drivers news reports quote CEO Travis Kalanick as saying:

    "I'd say 'Look, this is the way of the world, and the world isn't always great. We all have to find ways to change with the world."

    Can the rest of the world resist the lure of driverless vehicles if it seems like everyone, including competitors, are doing it?

    If not and autonomous vehicles replace humans the impact would be monumental:

    • Millions of jobs would be lost
    • Hundreds of billions of dollars in wages would disappear
    Image via: Huffington Post

    Granted, replacing humans behind the wheel of commercial vehicles would require regulatory and legislative approval that often moves much slower than technology. However, Ford CEO Mark Fields estimates fully autonomous cars will be available in less than four years.

    In a piece entitled Daddy, What Was a Truck Driver?, the Wall Street Journal’s Dennis Berman predicted machines like autonomous vehicles will take over driving in the next two decades. The efficiencies, improved safety, and favorable impact on the environment are unquestionable.

    So too is the impact on the country’s nearly 6-million professionally licensed drivers.

    The idea of automating the highways was first envisioned in 1939. Critics might point to the 77- years since then as evidence we’re still a long way from handing over the car keys to robots. Should it happen in the near future though and nothing fills the void left when pink slips are handed to:

    • Taxi drivers
    • Bus drivers
    • Train conductors
    • Postal drivers
    • Parcel drivers
    • Long haul truck drivers
    • Agricultural implement drivers
    • Dump truck operators
    • Forklift & heavy equipment operators

    How many of us will have the disposable income necessary to order discretionary items to be delivered by robots?



    About The Author

    Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.