A few weeks ago I attended the ‘lates’ at the London Science Museum where every last Wednesday of the month, you can walk around the amazing building with a drink in hand and learn about whichever theme is being focused on in that particular month (also helps that no kids are allowed!!!). August’s topic was ‘Driverless: Who is in control?’ which was even more fascinating as automation and autonomous vehicles is a becoming an ever-increasing discussion topic in our company and the logistics and industry in general.

Six stages of automation

In one of the discussions, the lecturer discussed the six stages of autonomous vehicles. 

It is interesting to know that only vehicles that are up to level 2 are currently being manufactured in today’s world but level 3 vehicles are being tested. Level 4 and 5 vehicles are when we start to look into true autonomy which is still long away in development, testing and technology.  

Levels-of-driving-automation

What does it mean to the logistics industry? 

Autonomous vehicles definitely seem like a technology that will be implemented in the future and deliver key benefits. It would be to some extent safer, reduce cost, assist with potential labour shortages, make transport more efficient and create a stronger link with the Internet of Things (IOT) making supply chain information a lot quicker and easier to access. Although this definitely looks to be the future for the industry, there are of course a lot of arguments against all the above points and this is where the ‘autonomous vehicles’ discussion comes into play. The main argument is, will it actually be safer? 

If all the vehicles on the road are autonomous Level 5 vehicles, then it could be considered to be a safer environment as it would take out the ‘human error’ element. This could however open up to more mechanical errors but as technology develops, this would be less likely. This would make the transport of goods more reliable and efficient. 

A question raised in one of the lectures in the Science Museum was ‘would we actually trust them’? According to a survey from the AAA, 73% of people surveyed reported that they would be afraid to be in a self-driving car. Not only this, but during a study of the 6 levels of automation, the consensus was that people would only start to become less focused on the road and driving, at the level 5 ‘full automation’ stage. This demonstrates that this is still a concept in its infancy and has to be perfected through testing thoroughly.

In terms of saving costs, any savings would be in the long term, in the short term however this is certainly not the case. You can already see that manufacturers of cars that have elements of autonomy within them such as Tesla are more expensive than those that have little or no elements of autonomy. This also brings into question of what happens to the work force that would be replaced by the machines. Although the trucking industry has been facing driver shortages for a while now in many parts of the world which would be helped by introducing autonomous trucks, the human labour would eventually be replaced. There are already many cases of protests against the development of automation in trucking which would only increase in frequency, the more developed this technology gets. 

Is human intervention always going to be needed?

A lot of people would have heard about Amazon testing and investing in all sorts of semi-autonomous technologies; drone deliveries, warehouse sorting machines and delivery robots to name just a few but while it is safe to test on a small scale in the safety of warehouses for sorting machines, the complexity of on-the-road vehicles is on a completely different scale. The potential of autonomous vehicles is huge within the logistics sector, especially as the industry is currently facing a crisis in attracting the next generation. It does however seem that this is going to be a progression that the world is striving for and will most likely be implemented in the future. This is certainly a very gradual process and full Level 5 vehicles will not be something we will witness for a while but expect to see more and more elements of automation within vehicles in the near future.

Dan Kitchin, NNR Global Logistics