How to build the transport hub of the future in 5 days

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This article is contributed by Andrey Bolshakov, founder and CEO of Evocargo.

Autonomous vehicles are subject to much stricter requirements than long-haul truck drivers and their vehicles. After all, there is no margin of error for robots. That’s why self-driving cars are being tested more thoroughly, including on public roads, and the media and public react so violently when they fail. Self-driving trucks, on the other hand, are generally tested on closed lanes for their weight (more than 40 tons) and speeds (with braking distances of more than 300 feet).

Still, forward-looking companies are testing self-driving trucks outside their usual warehouse and terminal locations. On February 16, US logistics provider CH Robinson announced it will partner with Waymo Via to operate autonomous Class 8 trucks on a logistics route between Dallas and Houston. If the testing is successful, CH Robinson will be able to offer the technology to its network of 200,000 shippers and carriers, and the United States will be at the center of a logistics revolution.

Self-driving truck startup Gatik announced in late 2021 that it would partner with discount chain Walmart. Several of its self-driving trucks are already on a 7-mile route between a Walmart distribution center and one of the company’s stores in Bentonville, Arkansas. The trucks can also be seen on routes in Ontario, Canada and Texas.

In addition, Aurora, the developer of autonomous trucks, recently partnered with Volvo to create driverless trucks and automate processes for US Xpress. TuSimple, a San Diego startup, also announced last year that one of its trucks delivered a shipment of watermelons 951 miles from Arizona to Oklahoma City in record time, 42% faster than a driver could have made the trip.

While these projects give cause for cautious optimism, it is important to remember that they all involve a fixed route with established infrastructure. The lack of clear rules for the use of public roads is another factor holding back the sector. All driverless routes from hub to hub are still in test mode and many more such tests will need to be conducted to prove the safety of autonomous trucks. For now, the largest states to allow self-driving vehicles to be tested on public roads are California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. Until a uniform set of rules has been developed, autonomous interstate logistics will remain out of reach.

Launch an autonomous system in five days

Using self-driving trucks in a warehouse environment is significantly easier than on public roads, allowing companies to focus on autonomous confined space vehicles and the benefits this can bring.

The first step towards launching an autonomous logistics system, with or without existing IT infrastructure, is to create a digital twin of the entire enclosed space. Then the routes are marked and loaded into each vehicle so that they can navigate through space even without a strong GPS signal or additional infrastructure such as RFID and magnetic bands typical of AGV. Any logistics provider with driverless solutions will also train the people who will charge and start the vehicles and make sure everyone knows where the vehicles will be driving. For example, Evocargo’s trucks are equipped with computer vision, so they stop or maneuver around objects and people that appear in their path. Supervisors work remotely, with up to ten trucks driven by one person. They can reboot a truck’s onboard computer or bring it back to base if problems arise, but for safety reasons, the supervisors don’t have full control over the trucks.

Companies need to develop software that uses machine learning and classic robotics to operate and maintain the self-driving trucks, even outside a controlled environment.

Einride’s Pod can travel up to 12.5 mph (for comparison, the EVO.1 has a top speed of 25 mph) and has 1 AET and 4 SAE autonomy ratings. This means that the truck can follow established routes in a controlled environment. Instead of a driver’s seat, the Pod has sensors installed behind a high windshield for the best possible access to lidar. Einride is currently conducting several pilot programs for the Pod, including one at the 920-acre Appliance Park campus in the United States and one with DB Schenker, SKF and Coca-Cola Europe in Sweden.

Some of the world’s largest port terminals are also moving towards automation. The port of Rotterdam has 85 self-driving trucks that have transported more than 100,000 containers since 2011. In 2023, VDL Automated Vehicles will provide the port with 77 new trucks with an improved navigation system with a vehicle-to-vehicle communication protocol. The new trucks will reduce waiting times and move more containers for greater efficiency in operations.

Self-driving vehicles are still expensive, but offer drivers benefits

Studies show that automated freight forwarding can save up to 35% of logistics costs, but the initial infrastructure costs can be daunting, even for a major player like CH Robinson.

We estimate that companies can save up to 60% on logistics by implementing a driverless system, primarily through reduced human error, fewer accidents and improved scheduling capabilities. Electric motors are also simpler and more reliable than gas combustion engines and require little maintenance. Adding hydrogen fuel cells to the package is one way to further reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

Drivers will not disappear anytime soon, as they will continue to be needed for first and last mile journeys and difficult driving in major cities. Automation also creates new jobs for remote truck drivers who can monitor multiple vehicles simultaneously. These changes are essential because fewer young people want to drive trucks and young people who do prefer shorter routes that allow them to spend more time at home.

Self-driving vehicles: self-driving trucks on the highway

A lot of legislative and infrastructure work needs to be done before driverless trucks can become a regular feature on hub-to-hub routes.

The main technological driver is the lidar devices that help autonomous vehicles measure the distance to objects in real time. As the market grows, the cost of lidar will decrease and the devices will become more compact and easy to use. Ultimately, lidar technology will improve the productivity of autonomous vehicles and reduce their energy consumption.

Self-driving trucks on hub-to-hub routes currently rely on a strong internet signal for their operation, but satellite internet projects like Starlink can solve that problem.

More electric vehicles on the road will require greater investment in the grid. This is a problem that can be solved by large-scale production of green hydrogen, which both reduces costs per kilometer and makes driverless electric vehicles safer and more sustainable.

The transition to self-driving trucks will create new jobs and significantly improve logistics quality and safety. At the moment, however, the industry relies on decisions by legislators and governments. One thing is certain: people have to see driverless trucks on highways before they can get used to them. And once people see how safe these autonomous vehicles are, they will be more interested in self-driving passenger cars. As a result, the industry faces the triple challenge of rigorously testing its vehicles, ensuring their safety and working with lawmakers to create a legal framework for autonomous logistics to succeed.

Andrey Bolshakov is the founder of Evocargo.

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