How AI and Robotics Will Power the Automated Truck Convoys of the Future
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AI and robotics technology are driving innovation in many corners of the procurement industry and automated trucks are set to make sure that larger loads get to their destinations in a more expedient and efficient manner than ever before.
Self-driving vehicles have been in the news a lot recently. However, the media's main focus up until now has been on cars for the consumer market, such as those being developed by Google sibling company Waymo, with the first of their kind now beginning to be tested on American roads. While automated vehicles are a long way from being rolled out en masse, their most useful potential application will be in supply chains.
Automated trucks, ships, and other freight transport will be ideally placed to deliver supply chain goods in greater quantities and in shorter times than ever before. Robots don't need to eat or sleep like their human equivalents, and digitally linking several automated trucks in a convoy can increase the loads taken in a single trip. AI-powered features such as automated braking systems could allow these convoys to remain close to one another, without the risk of a collision.
(Video source: youtube.com)
San Francisco based startup, Embark, has been one of the companies leading the vanguard of this innovation, with an autonomous coast-to-coast test drive from California to Florida.
The 2,400-mile trip was carried out over five days, with professional safety drivers on board who were there to take over the wheel should any issues arise. The freeway driving portions of the journey were completed by the robotics and AI system using a suite of sensors comprising of five cameras, three long-range radars, and at least two light detection and ranging sensors (lidars).
"The way we think about it is, moving freight is one of the best ways to perform tests," said Embark CEO and Co-Founder, Alex Rodrigues. "It teaches us a lot about how you actually interact with loads, how the timing works, how locations for pickup and drop-off work. It makes the systems much more effective in the real world."
Hurdles to Implementation
While test runs such as those undertaken by Embark are encouraging, there are a few risks which need to be addressed before automated transport can become the new norm - chief among them, of course, being related to security and safety.
GPS-spoofing designed to redirect trucks and other vehicles along with their freight is a very real concern for any vehicles using autonomous navigation systems. Another concern is that trucks need significant changes before they can function autonomously. Trailers, which can be changed between different cabs, will have to be fitted with sensors that allow the lorry to 'see' behind it and operate with the self-driving system of any given truck maker they happen to be coupled to.
With today's supply chains operating internationally and procurement loads often having to pass through several countries, it will be crucial that international regulations are in sync. This means that companies need to be sure their fleets of automated vehicles have the right to operate in every stage of the supply chain. Otherwise, there's a risk that patchwork or unclear rules could turn off investors from putting their money into automated transport.
The US Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, and the Federal Railroad Administration has been seeking public input on establishing the rules for self-driving commercial vehicles such as large trucks and trains. With a focus on safety, the government is keen to find out what the main concerns are around the future use of automated vehicles.
"The administration of President Donald Trump will unveil revised self-driving car guidelines in August, as it sets out to rewrite the regulations," said Chao.
There is still much work to be done before driverless vehicles start to proliferate across the supply chain - but they are on their way.
Once the rules have been clearly laid out and there is regulatory parity between countries - and the technology has been developed and tested to the extent that human intervention is no longer necessary - the sight of AI-driven automated truck convoys on the nation's highways will no doubt eventually become commonplace.
Disruptive technologies in the supply chain are set to be a hot topic at ProcureCon Indirect West 2018, taking place this September at the JW Camelback Inn Resort & Spa, Scottsdale, AZ.
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