IRU global innovation lead, Zeljko Jeftic, gets down to business. If the business proposition works - the technology will take care of the rest. The trick is to digitalise processes in the meantime, so that the opportunities can be seized as soon as they are viable.
For anyone involved in road transport, the last few years have seen some of the biggest changes in our lifetimes.
The field of automation is accelerating and it seems that we are not only ready to have self-driving trucks transporting our goods, but drones and hyperloops are on the horizon, too. But there is a long way to go before we reach nirvana.
And with some 90% of all road traffic accidents being caused, at least partially, by human error, increasing levels of automation through advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) or in fully autonomous vehicles need to be seen as a welcome complement.
While it may seem that vehicle automation is all new, this is not entirely so. The evolution of radars, cameras, lidars, computer processing power, machine learning and artificial intelligence is immense. Vehicle automation started decades ago but the first, major steps were made thanks to the Prometheus Programme, which developed self-driving vehicles since the late 1980s under the leadership of vehicle automation pioneer Ernst Dickmanns.
Tech-possible or commercially viable?
In the early stages, a van full of computers was needed to automate driving, but the equipment quickly shrunk and vehicles managed to demonstrate impressive drives, like a self-driving car journey from Munich in Germany to Odense in Denmark and back, covering 1758 km. 95% of that distance was done by autonomous driving. That was in 1995! Impressive, even by today’s standards. Still, showing what is technically possible is not the same as introducing the solutions to the market.
It is not the technology that dictates the introduction of new services. Rather, it is the opportunity to improve current operations and to capture new business that is the driving force.
And this is borne out by some current trends.
We saw this with Uber’s OTTO when they completed their first shipment of beer almost two years ago, and proclaimed it the first, real-world commercial use of autonomous trucking.
It drew a lot of attention but there was not much follow-up. More than two decades after Prometheus, this transport was not a huge technological achievement. However what was remarkable was that it challenged our thinking on the providers of transport services for the future.
Ultimately, Uber decided to cancel their developments of self-driving trucks and focus on self-driving cars. Still, there are a multitude of other companies from Silicon Valley to New Delhi, Europe to Asia who are working relentlessly on automating trucks.
Who’s selling and who’s buying?
A few of days ago, with much less media fuss than the OTTO announcement, something much bigger happened. Volvo Trucks launched its commercial autonomous transport solution working for Norwegian limestone mine Brønnøy Kalk AS. This solution will consist of six autonomous Volvo trucks, which will transport limestone on a five-kilometre stretch.