Autonomous technology is revolutionizing passenger and commercial transport. While its advances in the personal mobility sphere in the form of robotaxis and self-driving cars have been well documented, the use of self-driving trucks across a wide range of use cases and application sectors in the commercial arena is also picking up momentum. From long haul, middle mile and last mile, from highways to closed industrial sites, from port warehouses to mines, trucks with varied levels of autonomous technology – fully autonomous to semi-autonomous – have been garnering increasing interest and investment.
Against this backdrop comes the news of the partnership between Finnish automated driving technology company, Sensible 4, and Japanese commercial vehicle solutions provider, UD Trucks. The combination of UD Trucks’ heavy-duty truck, Quon, with Sensible 4’s automated driving software platform, DAWN™, underpins the successful real-world deployment of an L4 heavy-duty, self-driving truck that can autonomously pick, transport and dump material within a geo-fenced industrial site. The retrofitted truck made its debut at a closed, live industrial site of one of UD’s customers in Japan in December 2022.
Advanced technologies, digitally driven business models, automation, and the need to reduce carbon emissions are transforming the commercial trucking market. Electrification and autonomous trucking continue to attract attention, spurred by rapid technological progress and exciting commercialization prospects.
Today, the revenue opportunity associated with the dump truck market alone is estimated at upwards of $25 billion, with potential applications in factories, ports, mines, and refineries, among others. Autonomous trucks, much like that of UD Trucks & Sensible 4’s offering, are seen as yielding multiple benefits: lower operational costs, higher profits, improved fuel consumption, greater safety, and superior overall efficiencies. In the process, they directly address some of the major challenges confronting the commercial trucking industry.
For a start, automation means lowered operating costs since the biggest cost center of a truck – the driver – is removed from the equation. As importantly, autonomous vehicle technologies help address the intensifying problem of driver shortages. In this context, the expanded use of autonomous fleets does not imply higher driver costs. Indeed, in the case of certain operations at industrial sites, the replacement of a cohort of large, heavy-duty trucks with fleets of smaller, more flexible, low emission, automated trucks could realize improved cost savings and increased profit margins.
Self-driving trucks are also widely acknowledged as being productivity catalysts. Advanced engine and vehicle technology are key enablers in this regard since they facilitate both reduced fuel consumption and lower maintenance requirements. This, in turn, translates to minimized vehicle downtime, higher resource efficiencies, and better productivity. Continuous and streamlined performance of repetitive tasks is crucial in industrial operations. Here, automated trucks offer the prospect of performing routine tasks, safely and reliably.
A major factor that can affect the smooth running of operations at industrial sites is the weather. A premium is therefore placed on reliable, commercial automation solutions that can be easily integrated into vehicles and can support safe and continuous functioning in all-weather conditions. For instance, DAWN™’s modular software architecture comprising four stacks—positioning and mapping, obstacle detection and tracking, planning and control, and remote operations—makes it easy to incorporate into existing vehicle systems. At the same time, sensor fusion for all-weather perception, the ability to work in darkness and in the absence of road markings, and L4 autonomy with on-demand remote control capabilities highlights the capacity to continue work on site safely and uninterruptedly, without any impact on productivity.
The journey to full self-driving vehicles will be a long and challenging one. Technology readiness is an immediate concern. Despite accelerated progress, driverless technology, like other disruptive technologies, will face question marks over its safety until it is more well established. Regulations have also lagged, with little clarity and uniformity regarding testing and validation. As the market evolves, the deployment of self-driving vehicles in industrial sites will present a compelling case for adoption of such commercial automation technology in other mobility application spheres as well.