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How Automation and Autonomous Vehicles May Transform the Transportation Industry

Uber testing self-driving car
CC BY 2.0 by Zombieite


Though talk of transportation’s future may conjure images of flying cars and teleporting, the reality may be much different—and arrive much sooner—than Hollywood’s celluloid vision. On-going research in government and private sectors aim to bring internet-enabled technologies to market.  This Internet of Things (IoT) is enabling connected automated transportation that can improve fuel and mobility efficiency, safety outcomes, and lead to economic savings.

Utilizing automated technology in transportation

Although a widespread shift to fully autonomous transportation may be a ways off, most vehicles these days are equipped with some type of automation.

Automation means that many common driving functions are carried out without human driver input—including steering, braking, and predictive maintenance. Nearly two decades ago, car steering systems moved from hydraulic-based to electric power systems (EPS). EPS technology has introduced the capability for advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) to help drivers stay in their lanes and to provide parking assistance. New technology in this space, such as Nexteer Automotive’s MAGNASTEER with Torque Overlay (MTO), is intended for use in fully autonomous vehicles and promises to not just assist drivers, but to fully operate the steering valve without any operator input.

In 2016, twenty auto companies pledged to make automatic emergency braking (AEB) a standard feature in new cars by 2022. Car manufacturers see clear benefits in adopting this technology for widespread use as it can greatly reduce the number of accidents and fatalities on the roadways. AEB systems sense if a collision is imminent and apply the brakes to avoid impact. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, each year there are more than 2,000 fatalities and more than 500,000 injuries sustained from rear-end collisions alone, so AEB could greatly improve safety outcomes.

Automation can also help users monitor the system function of vehicles. Currently, sensors are used to monitor engine performance, exhaust systems, transmission function and signal failure to users. IoT technology can also evaluate things like tire pressure and oil levels—which are less complex systems—but can still cause significant problems if they were to fail. Access to this information in real-time allows users to conduct vehicle maintenance or repair responsively, before problems intensify and become costlier.

Each of these types of automation yield benefits for the individual operator by offering improved safety and economic outcomes. Further, as automotive integration IoT technology grows, its benefits have the potential to transform the transportation industry.

Adoption of autonomous vehicles for freight transport

Data from the Boston Consulting Group projects that the market for autonomous transport will grow to 42 billion USD by 2025. There are many potential benefits for individual consumers if vehicle pathways and propulsion are not influenced by human variability. These benefits include fuel economy, reduced travel times, and greater accessibility. Perhaps the biggest gain, however, may be realized in the trucking industry in particular.

According to the American Trucking Association (ATA), the value of the U.S. trucking industry is more than $700 billion. This figure is significant, but not surprising given that most of American commerce is served by this network. In 2016, greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector was the U.S.’s biggest emitter of CO2. Autonomous vehicles could introduce a smoother, more efficient traffic flow and a reduction in CO2. emissions. A shift to autonomous vehicles for freight trucking purposes could also offer significant benefits on the economic side, transporting products more efficiently and predictably. Further, the trucking industry’s most costly component—its human capital, drivers—could be greatly reduced.

Though there are obvious benefits that a shift to autonomous vehicles would bring, it is important to note that it could result in a significant workforce reduction in the industry. In doing so, it could also introduce complexities as yet unaccounted for—such as the possibility of leaving between 3-5 million U.S. truck drivers out of work. Additionally, investments in infrastructure could be extensive. In particular, roadway retrofitting and adaptation would be essential, yet costly.

How transforming the transportation industry through automation technology can benefit the broader public

Adopting automation technology more broadly would increase the scale of its benefits. In addition, automation and autonomous vehicle technology could have greater social value beyond just efficiency and safety. The potential for less congested and safer roadways is something that would have immediate impact on individuals by simplifying travel logistics and reducing stress from traffic and gridlock. Widespread autonomous vehicle use will also transform parking needs, particularly in dense urban areas. If passengers are dropped off at their destination and vehicles can be parked farther away and in more compact configurations, that do not need to allow for operator pathways. A reduction in traditional parking needs could even result in things like increased green space in our cities—having a direct (and positive) impact on our day-to-day lives.