Autonomous Trucking: How Leaders today should Prepare for 2025 and beyond
In August 2020 NOW Network president, Mush Khan, interviewed Allan Rutter, with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, and Dan Goff of Kodiak Robotics on The NOW Revolution Podcast regarding autonomous trucking. In that episode they focused on the pace of technology innovation and the importance of safety in autonomous trucking. In this blog post I am going to focus on what they think we’ll see in 5 years in this area and how leaders should be preparing. If you want to listen to the entire podcast you can find it here. You can find the episode on YouTube or Spotify.
Mush Khan: Let’s dig into one core topic in the time that we have remaining. Want to make sort of a really practical conversation. So, Dan, let’s start with you. Let’s say that you’re a freight company or you’re somewhere within the supply chain ecosystem, can be a freight company it could be a buyer of freight, warehousing, etc. What kinds of things should you be thinking about today to take the first steps on adopting a new way of thinking around your business? Because it can be pretty daunting as we hear about these sorts of technologies and how things are moving. It can be pretty daunting to think about where I even begin if I’m an owner of these businesses so what are your thoughts on that Dan?
Dan Goff: Sure. I think it’s a first step to think about this. I mean, as you just said, our trucks have been on the road for a year, we’ve delivered 400 loads for customers. Basically, nobody’s noticed. Sometimes, I wish people would notice more to the extent that I’m involved in our public outreach.
And so, I think one of the interesting things about automated freight is that, in fact, we’re not really disrupting anybody in the way that people think about Silicon Valley’s sort of cutting in and breaking stuff. In fact, you know the American freight system is incredibly efficient and incredibly high, well-oiled machine and we’re really looking to make just one part of that machine, a little bit more efficient and a little bit safer.
I hate to say this because, you know, one thing that we realized sort of fairly quickly is that in the end we’re a trucking company more than a technology company in a lot of ways. So, if you’re interested in in the technology, give us or one of our competitors a call and say, hey, I’d like to ship something with you. And in fact, you’ll probably see that it won’t make that much of a difference in what you’re doing, which I think is great. I don’t think at least in the short term, people really need to reorient themselves around automation. In the longer one I think some of the different changes, however, are going to be perhaps a little more profound. So, as I said, again, we’re focused on just middle mile what we call middle mile, but just the sort of interstate highway portion of the logistics chain.
So that means we’re going to be looking for places where we can switch. First of all, we’re preserving a pretty significant role for traditional human truck drivers for first and last mile and actually think we’re going to be creating a lot of jobs in that space. And it means also we’re going to need places where we can switch between a switch a load from a traditional truck to one of our trucks somewhere highway adjacent. If you own a warehouse or in the warehousing business. I think it’s time to at least start thinking about how do we prepare our warehouses and prepare our infrastructure for self-driving trucks. Are we optimally placed close to highways? Do we have sort of the right space to switch loads? Again, you know, once you’re already switching loads, maybe it makes sense to switch to an electric tractor, which will, once the infrastructure build out, probably be a little bit cheaper and more efficient. So, are we prepared for those kinds of switches?
But those questions are a little bit of a ways off and right now if you’re interested. It’s something that actually is relatively easy to try, so long as you’re on one of the routes that we or competitors are focused on right now. This technology is not quite on rails, but we are just doing Dallas to Houston right now. And that’s something that I don’t know if we’re going to change that next year or the next.
Mush Khan: Great. Thanks, Dan. Allan, how about you? What would be your conversation with someone who is a business owner or leader in the space? How should they start taking steps to really embrace technology like this?
Allan Rutter: Well, I think they have the opportunity to think about like how Dan described their operation as a freight provider, not a technology company. And so, if you’re a shipper or you if you have a fleet, or if you’re in the business as a broker or 3PL, your job is to provide your clients the ability to take stuff from one place to another, keeping an eye on how that happens and how to add efficiencies.
The discussion or consideration of whether that highway trip is going to be automated is part of how reliable is that? If that’s happening on off hours maybe you get some reliability benefits. Maybe there’s some cost benefits that accrue to you. And those same 3PLs and shippers and carriers are also trying to figure out how to gain more business intelligence out of the ton of data that’s being created by their trucks in normal trucks right now.
A whole lot of OEMs are starting to realize that they are not only in the equipment manufacturing business. They are in the service provision business. And so, a lot of folks who provide tires or lubricants or engines are offering people the opportunity to buy service in the same way that HP actually sells ink not printers. These guys are providing ongoing service to help create diagnostic information that helps people gain more business intelligence. How the drivers are performing and how they can be coached, how their engines are performing and how to get better mileage.
There’s a whole lot of benefits that these guys are adopting technology incrementally all over the place, automation in the vehicle movement is one part of an automation space that’s increasing their ability to keep squeezing more efficiencies out of the freight world.
Mush Khan: So it seems like both of you talked about this concept of different parts of the supply chain beginning to light up with automation or technology or data, and it certainly seems like we’re moving towards a connection of all those things together. Maybe we’re still some time away from that. So that beautifully highly efficient connectivity, but I can see how that world is evolving. So, one final question for both of you.
If you had a magic wand and you could predict or create what the world would look like in five years’ time as it relates to the freight movements that we’re talking about, what would you want to see what do you think would be an incredible outcome for society and customers and participants in the supply chain. So, Dan. I’m going to start with you.
Dan Goff: That’s a good question. I think from an infrastructure perspective, one thing that the industry is really focused on is making this as lightweight as possible.
We don’t want this to be a 50-year infrastructure project. This is not building the interstate system again. And it’s really uncool, but if there’s one thing that policymakers could do to sort of accelerate adoption of this technology. I’m going to go with two things. One is that highway adjacent parking that I mentioned earlier, and I think it’s important to understand machine learning. People talk a lot about machine learning and self-driving is an application machine learning technology. Machine learning is not magic, it’s a very high functioning pattern recognition.
So, making those patterns as consistent as possible, turns out to be really important. Making sure that when people are doing construction they actually bothered to repaint the lane lines, even if it’s only for a few weeks of construction, turns out to be really helpful for these kinds of technologies.
People often asked us what we’re looking for and expecting us to say we need 5G covering every inch of highway and all these vehicles, to infrastructure, to kinds of technologies and like lane lines, actually, it’s pretty important.
I do think the public education part is really important, as Allan talked about, that people are really going to like these technologies but are going to be weird at first. And we were planning on bringing a truck to SXSW, we were pretty excited about that. We were going to do a demo. And you know, it’s hard for people to get sort of hands on experience with these kinds of technologies these days. But I think that’s really important as well.
Mush Khan: Yeah. Great. Thank you, Dan. Allan. How about you?
Allan Rutter: I’d say five years from now, we’re going to see an explosion of different kinds of freight technology beyond what we can even expect right now. I think we’re going to see different kinds of propulsion, power. A lot more electric, a lot more fuel cells, a lot less diesel.
We’re going to see some changes in business practices. A lot more hub and spoke, a lot more regional, which hand off to some of those inner-city movements. I think the ability to leverage the efficiencies that come from this increasing automation of long-haul interstate movements offers some abilities to have trucking almost function a little like air airlines did a couple of decades ago.
So, I think there’s going to be real variety of kinds of opportunities out there, all of which means that as we as consumers buy more stuff and buy more stuff online that all that can get to our houses as soon as we want, efficiently and cheaply and safely. So, I really expect some really dramatic, unusual, and very interesting changes in the future.
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