Autonomous Vehicles: How Far Off Are We?

Though auto manufacturers continue to work on their self-driving cars, the days when we see a tractor trailer on the road without a driver could still be far off.

Self-driving cars have been known to occasionally mistake snowflakes for obstacles, lose lane markings, and miss cars on the side of the road. “It’s important to note that none of these vehicles is capable of driving safely on its own,” IIHS’ David Zuby said. “A production autonomous vehicle that can go anywhere, anytime isn’t available at your local car dealer, and won’t be for quite some time.”

After testing five systems, IIHS determined that nearly all of them missed the mark multiple times by crossing or touching lane lines, or disengaging during driving. For example, fake graffiti caused algorithms to misidentify stop signs; seagulls stopped the cars by simply standing on the street; and bridges—which lack many of the environmental cues present on roads—can prevent sensors from keeping the vehicle on track.  

Trucks that Drive Themselves?

The issues IIHS uncovered may not seem insurmountable for passenger car makers to overcome, but in the context of an 80,000-pound tractor trailer with 18 conventional wheels and an extended braking distance, we clearly have a way to go before autonomous vehicles have a significant impact on commercial transportation.

“Many new vehicles can help drivers perform some tasks, like maintaining following distance and lane centering, but no car can handle every driving task on a full range of roads and conditions,” Tanya Mohn writes in Forbes. The technology, while improving, still needs time to develop before it can handle everything the road can throw at it.

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

As self-driving car advocates wait patiently for the vehicles to be ready for prime time, industry experts say little attention is being paid to whether the nation’s current road infrastructure is ready for these advanced cars and trucks.

“Self-driving cars are the most challenging automation project ever undertaken,” Nick Oliver writes in To Make Self-Driving Cars Safe, We Also Need Better Roads and Infrastructure. “Driving requires a great deal of processing and decision making, which must be automated. On top of that, there are many unpredictable external factors that must be accounted for, and therefore many ways in which the driving environment must change.”

Cars are heavy, fast-moving objects, operating in public spaces. Trucks, vans, and other commercial vehicles are even heavier and tend to spend more time on the road than they do parked. “Safety is largely the responsibility of the driver, who must continuously observe, analyze, decide, and act,” Oliver writes. “Not only do drivers have to follow the rules of the road, but they also have to communicate with each other and other road users to navigate ambiguous or contested situations; think about how you wave or nod to someone to signal ‘You go first.’”

To be truly ready for prime time, self-driving systems will have to be able to execute all of these functions, and do so accurately, reliably, and safely, across a wide variety of situations and conditions. “Currently,” he points out, “the technology is more capable in some situations than in others.”

More Work to Be Done

While the allure of autonomous vehicles is clear and understood, and while technical advancements are being made and the capabilities to apply them to commercial use may in fact exist, A.T. Kearney’s Cort Jacoby says there are several challenges that will curtail adoption.

“These include government regulations, legal risk, questions regarding liability and ongoing maintenance of the technology, including resident skill sets within the companies, whether shippers or logistics companies seeking to implement this capability,” Jacoby told SupplyChainDive. “That’s to name just a few challenges.”

Jacoby goes on to say that he has a hard time seeing the financial and operational benefits associated with early adoption of autonomous vehicles. “For the vast remainder of the companies depending on logistics to move goods across their respective supply chains,” he concludes, “there are many opportunities to extract efficiencies and further optimize current operations through commercially available and proven technology (e.g. backhaul optimization, carrier visibility, and rapid load/unload), that are not even close to being extracted.”

In The Meantime

Autonomous vehicles likely won’t be on the roads in a substantial capacity for many years, so in the meantime, it behooves the shipper to partner with an organization that can handle the complex movements of their products. Odyssey is a 3PL with a global reach, able to move your products anywhere, any time, regardless of product, mode or end destination. Self-driving trucks on the roads are, for the time being, a thing of the future – Odyssey is your ticket to success in the present.


If you’re interested in learning about Odyssey’s full suite of supply-chain services, click the link here.