Autonomous Vehicles (Robot Trucks) Will Redesign the Entire Supply Chain

By Dr. Tom DePaoli

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Many supply chain professionals do not completely understand the disruption and improvements that autonomous vehicles, specifically what I call robot trucks, will create. Most cannot get past the pitfalls and possible barriers to robot trucks and push back any pre-thinking about the impacts. I define robot trucks with a broader perspective. I include trucks of all sizes and even internal plant material handling equipment like fork-lifts and automatic guided vehicles (AVGs).

The biggest leap that will happen is that robot trucks will learn! Many doubters cannot get past this. Although not complete artificial intelligence (AI), robot trucks will adapt on their own, to conditions and circumstances, and build a memory of what to do. Major advances in Simultaneous Localization and Mapping (SLAM) are accelerating.  Here are some aspects to think about.

Warehouse placement and location will be completely challenged. Many logistics people spot warehouses placement based on a 500-mile deliver radius or circle. Robot trucks will at least double this radius to 1,000 miles. Some warehouse placement is to enable the semi-truck drivers to return home for the night.  Obviously robot trucks do not need this.

Robot trucks will directly compete with domestic air freight and rail. Next-day delivery of 1,000 miles or more is feasible with robot trucks. In fact, rates may be based on how fast a material is delivered down to the minute. Some trucking companies may even adapt a spoke-hub concept or meld with an air freight company.

Labor shortages of truck drivers will become less of an issue. The design of a robot truck will not have to accommodate for creature comforts (driver) which can be as much as one-third of the total cost of a manned truck. Driver limitations of 10-11 hours driving will not be a factor.

Smaller local delivery robot trucks will compete with more exotic delivery methods such as drones.

Truck delivery dock design and layout may have to be modified or adjusted to meet robot truck capabilities.

SLAM will be enhanced for internal plant vehicles, like fork-lifts, and automated guided vehicles. (AVGs). Material handling costs can be as high as 30-40% of a product’s cost and is pure waste. The greatest leap will be the interconnect-ability of the equipment and communication with inbound and outbound freight delivery vehicles.

I believe one of the biggest barriers to robot trucks will be that fact that we are a litigious society and accidents will be aggressively litigated. However all the data point to fewer accidents with robot trucks not more. Legislation will be needed to deal with this issue. Unfortunately, legislative bodies are rarely proactive in creating laws for emerging technologies.

I offer as evidence of this failure to act legislatively with this statement, “Heavy-duty rigs make up between 7% and 10% of vehicles on the road but consume more than 25% of the fuel”, according to Dave Cooke, Senior Vehicles Analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Yet there is still no coherent national energy policy to consider alternate fuels for these rigs.

Fuel choices include hydrogen, natural gas, electricity and methane. They all have distribution and environment footprint issues that need to be addressed.

In summary, supply chain professionals must rethink their entire logistics strategies both eternally and internally with the emergence of robot trucks.

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