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Supply Chain 7 min read

How the supply chain is pioneering autonomous driving

How the supply chain is pioneering autonomous driving

Truly autonomous vehicles are still in their infancy, but it's the supply chain that is fast emerging as the pioneer of the tech.

There have been many bold claims made about autonomous vehicles. In 2015, Elon Musk predicted we'd have driverless cars that could take us “anywhere" within two to three years, going so far as to say that by 2020 Tesla robotaxis would be picking up fares. He wasn't the only innovator to make such claims, with British cab firm Addison Lee betting big on robotaxis becoming a common sight on London's streets by 2021 (the plan was quietly dropped in March of last year).


Roads around ports are getting busier. In Rotterdam, traffic volumes are up by 6%. Could automation in ports have a knock-on effect out of them?


The reality, though, has been somewhat different. “The basic technologies and methods that enable driverless vehicles have been developed during the last 25 years," said Arto Visala, professor of autonomous systems; robotics and automation technology at Aalto University. “But so far, it's been far too dangerous to let self-driving cars operate autonomously in public traffic, and too expensive to produce them commercially. Legislation has not covered autonomous driving on public roads."

His colleague, Iisakki Kosonen, staff scientist at Aalto University who specializes in intelligent transportation systems, added: “The most difficult part for robots is that traffic is a social phenomenon. While they are far better at abiding by rules, they are clumsier at interpreting the human aspects of driving."

As technology progresses, we'll see significant moves toward autonomous driving in the coming years. But achieving full-blown automation on the road, or in industry terms, level 5, which doesn't require either human intervention or pedals and a steering wheel, is a lot more complicated to achieve, particularly on public roads.

Elon Musk later went on to recognize the challenges of an autonomous future in this tweet: “A major part of real-world AI has to be solved to make unsupervised, generalized full self-driving work as the entire road system is designed for biological neural nets with optical imagers."

In other words, until AI can act and reason like a human brain, driverless cars in their fully automated state won't work.

The emergence of new ADAS services will continue during 2022, as OEMs try to bridge the gap between Level 2 and Level 3.

However, in some applications, automated vehicles are already making great strides. At the Mawan Smart Port in Shenzhen, China, autonomous trucks have been deployed to transport containers to and from ships, often faster and safer than a human driver.

Opened late last year, this 5G-enabled smart port uses artificial intelligence, location technology and blockchain to automate this once-labor intensive part of the supply chain. It's not a unique case either. Autonomous logistics is attracting a lot of investment.

It couldn't come at a more prescient time. With shipping costs rising, due to a combination of factors including increased demand for goods, saturated ports, and a shortage of workers and truck drivers, automated trucks are enabling dock operators to achieve higher operational efficiency while also addressing the labor deficit in the industry.

Another benefit automated trucks bring, particularly in the supply chain, is a reduction in carbon emissions. At the Mawan Smart Port, it's expected its fleet of autonomous vehicles will lead to a 450-ton reduction in carbon dioxide and a 1,350-ton reduction in nitrogen dioxide.

Graham Porter, head of Tiger Group Investments, believes automated trucking represents one of the biggest changes in logistics. He said in an interview with Shipping in 2030 magazine: “This will redefine the logistics of the world. Efficiencies will improve dramatically, essentially highway trains will come about, with cargo moving 24 hours a day as there will be no limiting human driver."

By 2025, it's expected that 6,000 to 7,000 level-4 autonomous trucks will be in operation in Chinese ports, a penetration rate of more than 20%. So why are automated port trucks gaining such ground when road-going driverless vehicles aren't?

Ports are being smart enabled through 5G and AI, bringing new efficiencies to the supply chain through automation.

Automatic for the people

Because ports are geographically constrained areas, they're the perfect environment for autonomous trucks to flourish, given the right infrastructure.

“In many ways, industrial environments are ideal — or at least easier — for autonomous driving. They are closed and highly structured environments in which routes and driving tasks are standardized, and surfaces are most often flat. It's a much simpler problem to solve than public traffic, which is more complex and dynamic," Visala told Kone Cranes.

Compared to mapping a complex city or a highway network, creating high-resolution, 3D maps of ports is a relatively simpler task. Plus, ports don't have to counter for multiple forms of transportation — like pedestrians, bikes and cars — all vying for the same space.

"Autonomous taxis are getting the most headlines, but a fully autonomous taxi will be the last thing we will see," said Filip Klippel, product marketing manager for automotive, at HERE Technologies.

Instead, he too believes that it's controlled environments such as harbors and airports that will pioneer autonomous vehicles because these places have fewer circumstances where a human driver might need to intervene.

Once the infrastructure basics are in place — a highly-accurate 3D map and the hardware, for instance — and then with emerging technologies such as AI and 5G, ports become almost like micro smart cities where autonomous vehicles have the freedom to operate seamlessly and safely. Their success here, and the learnings gathered, could well spearhead their adoption in society as a whole.

On the power of 5G capability, Charles Sevior, CTO for unstructured data solutions at Dell, told Verdict: “5G opens up a massive information superhighway. We're seeing a lot of advances in high tech manufacturing that involves a lot of smart machines, a lot of IoT sensors, a lot of robotics, and bringing all that data together over a private 5G network." Even so, Sevior still believes we are 10 years away from level 5 autonomy on the roads.

Low-speed, autonomous shuttles driving in well-mapped areas and aided by 5G, AI and location technology are, for the moment, the flag carrier for the driverless revolution.

Ian Dickson

Ian Dickson


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