Autonomous freight transport – by sea and on land. Is the future as bright as it looks?
Many technology experts unanimously acknowledge that autonomous transport is the inevitable future of freight transport. This is also evidenced by the fact that in recent years, more and more countries around the world are beginning to take the first steps towards autonomous land and sea freight transport. But despite the many pros that come with computer-driven vehicles, this technological breakthrough also has its drawbacks, which raises the question of whether the future of autonomous freight transport is as bright as it looks.
Autonomous transport in the world
Several countries in Europe and elsewhere in the world have embarked on a path towards autonomous freight transport. The first autonomous caravans appeared in Europe last year, when they started running on German roads. Such a caravan consists of two trucks traveling in a column one after the other. The first is controlled by a human, and the second by a robot. The United States, on the other hand, has taken a step further in using autonomous trucks, not only by testing them, but also by actively using and expanding them. For example, TuSimple plans to increase its fleet of autonomous cars to 50 vehicles this year.
In the world of maritime transport, too, autonomous transport is slowly beginning its winning streak. The Japanese and Chinese at the forefront of technology plan to launch their first autonomous ships on the high seas in November this year and February 2022. However, sea carriers are also trying to go a step further by making autonomous vessels more environmentally friendly. For example, the Norwegian company Yara International has created a zero-emission vessel capable of carrying cargo without a crew.
Benefits of autonomous transport
There are several reasons why the world of freight transport is moving rapidly towards autonomous vehicles. One of them is work efficiency – with the help of autonomous vehicles or ships, it is possible to employ your cargo carrier without interruption – 24 hours a day, which is not possible if the ship or truck is driven by a person. Autonomous lorries also allow companies to circumvent many of the conditions in the Mobility Package, such as drivers having to return home every four weeks. Security is also an important aspect. Data from the study “The human factor and maritime safety” show that about 70% of accidents at sea are caused by human error. Autonomous vessels controlled by robots would make it possible to reduce these harsh statistics.
The challenges of autonomous transport
The above benefits and the acceptance by many technology experts, as well as sea and land freight experts, that autonomous transport is our future are creating a pink spectacle effect for the forthcoming technology boom. It is rarely said that autonomous technology experts have not yet been able to solve a number of problems. As machines become more complex, the risk of technical problems will inevitably increase. Cyber-attacks, hackers that can break into a system and cause a ship or vehicle to change course or even cause an accident, weather conditions – heavy snowfall, heavy rain, wind or storm, calculation of stopping distance on various surfaces, including slippery surfaces – these are just a few from the challenges that technology experts need to be able to find solutions to build people’s confidence in autonomous transport.
Another topical question is whether countries are ready to introduce autonomous transport. Unfortunately, the answer is ambiguous, as while European powers such as Germany are planning to change their legislation to allow cars with electronic steering to participate in traffic, one of the most influential maritime associations in the United States, the International Longshoremen’s Association, said its members would not serve ships without crew. The association has already shown strong resistance to all forms of automation in the maritime world. Another important aspect is that international shipping law currently requires all cargo ships sailing in international waters to be manned. This means that fully automated vessels are not allowed to sail outside their national waters.
There are countries that are not ready not only for autonomous sea but also for land transport. It is considered that, for safety reasons, virtual haulers need at least two lanes of carriageway in each direction of travel along the entire route, separated from the carriageway of the opposite direction. However, the road infrastructure of many countries does not currently provide for such roads, which means that autonomous land trucks would not be able to enter these countries at all for safety reasons.
Undoubtedly, autonomous control systems go hand in hand with the endless development of technology, as a result of which they will enter the world of freight transport more and more rapidly. The car and ship industry will also sooner or later solve all the above problems, but we will have to wait a long time before autonomous goods vehicles can travel safely on land and water. And to the question of whether the future of computer-controlled vehicles is as bright as it seems, the most accurate answer seems to be – time will tell!
Author: Roland Peterson, logistics expert