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Industrial Mobility Adoption Faces Cost, Safety Roadblocks

by Nathan Eddy
Manufacturers are curious about autonomous commercial vehicles --everything from long haul trucks to factory floor forklifts -- but are so far taking a wait-and-see approach.

This was the finding of a PwC and The Manufacturing Institute (MI) survey of 128 large and midsized American manufacturers and transportation companies.

Nearly 60% of manufacturers surveyed cited cost as one of the top barriers to adoption of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles within their plants, followed by immature technology (42%) and safety issues (32%).

While only 9% of manufacturers have adopted some type of semi-autonomous or autonomous mobility within their operations, the survey indicated another 10% are expecting to do so in the next three years.

The report also revealed US investments in private mobility companies totaled $6.8 billion for mobility startups between 2012 and 2017.

"I think the technology to support autonomous long-haul trucking technology will approach maturity in the next five to ten years," Greg Roger, policy analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation told PwC in an interview included in the report. "However, we're still 10 to 20 years off from having fully driverless trucks from being a common sight on the roads."

Roger added that he thought the fear of displacing human workers and the general public's initial safety concerns will keep drivers in the trucks for at least another decade or two into the future.

While there are also concerns that autonomous trucks represent a threat to jobs in the same way automation in general has some economists worried, an Uber report suggests self-driving commercial vehicles could actually be a boost to the industry.

The survey cites a study by the American Trucking Associations, which estimates that over the next decade, more than 400,000 of today's drivers will retire.

Over that same time period, the ATA predicts that demand for freight will increase by 37%.

The report projected that if the industry continues down its current path, approximately 900,000 new drivers will be needed to keep up with future demand.

"Autonomous commercial trucks could eventually have a positive impact on the driver shortage, but we are still years away from truly driverless Class 8 trucks running on the highway as a normal part of the industry," the ATA report noted.

The Uber report noted the biggest technical hurdles for self-driving trucks are driving on tight and crowded city streets, backing into complex loading docks, and navigating through busy facilities.

Earlier this month, Embark Technology, a startup developing self-driving trucks, announced it had completed a coast-to-coast, 2,400-mile journey from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Fla., test drive with a semi-autonomous truck.

Despite some high-profile successes, a 2017 J.D. Power report indicates Americans have only grown more skeptical of the safety of autonomous vehicles as they've evolved.

Excepting only Gen Y -- those born 1977-1994 -- all other generational groups have grown more skeptical of self-driving car technology, according to the firm's 2017 U.S. Tech Choice Study, a finding that could indicate a new challenge to car manufacturers and technology developers.

Nathan Eddy is a filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Berlin. Follow him on Twitter @dropdeaded209_LR.

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