carloscastilla - Fotolia


Driverless vehicles to rev up supply chain management

If self-driving forklifts and fleets of trucks guided by technology sound like science fiction, think again. Here's a look at what's happening today -- and what's coming tomorrow.

Once the stuff of science fiction, driverless vehicles are becoming increasingly commonplace, particularly in freight operations. Improved energy efficiency, speed and safety are accelerating the trend, and supply chains around the world are beginning to phase in the technology.

While this revolution is gradual, autonomous vehicle technology is also delivering immediate improvements at several points of entry into the supply chain process. Many supply chain participants are introducing driverless vehicles in selected logistical processes to prove out the change, which requires only a local commitment to those individual processes. Confidence in the overall technology, then, has been growing steadily, without the need for an all-or-nothing decision.

What are those points of entry, and what is involved in each?

Starting small with driverless vehicle tests

The easiest and safest point of entry for driverless vehicles is warehouse operations, where environments are contained, easily constrained and where traffic can be subject to strict governance. This makes warehouses the ideal proving ground for autonomous vehicle technology; safety is easier to ensure during its introduction, and results are easy to accrue and evaluate.

Driverless trucks head for the fast lane

Though several technology models have been deployed in the evolution of autonomous warehouse vehicles (metal floor tape and radio wire were early guidance mechanisms), the latest -- depth cameras and lasers mounted on vehicles -- offer the most flexibility. Armed with these tools, a warehouse vehicle can build a 3D map of the environment and use it to navigate and adapt as objects are moved or new objects are introduced. This technology is not only safer (navigation is highly accurate), but more energy-efficient (route planning is both more variable and more precise). KNAPP's Open Shuttle is a good example.

A subset of this application is assisted order picking -- vehicles whose task it is to roam the shelves of a warehouse assembling an order (the FiFi system is an example). This method of order fulfillment is faster, cheaper and more accurate than human operations. An interesting variation is Amazon Robotics, where automated vehicles pick up an entire shelf and bring it to a centralized position to build the order.

Driverless vehicles help out in the warehouse yard

Beyond the safety of the warehouse is the yard -- the open area between buildings, on private and contained property. Seaports, wharfs, airports and warehouse complexes are examples of such environments.

The supply chain can make significant gains in these environments, deploying self-guided forklifts and small trucks. Germany has been the pacesetter for such deployments, where dozens of autonomous small vehicles can be found transporting containers from wharf to warehouse using object detection technology in the vehicles and transponders embedded in the ground for navigational assistance.

The need for increased efficiency in the financially beleaguered air transport industry has made this sort of logistical improvement an easy decision.

High-tech truckin' heads out on the highway

The holy grail of driverless vehicle deployment is, of course, public road transport. Cost and safety are far greater issues on open roads, and the vast majority of supply chains have at least some open road components.

While the deployment of autonomous vehicle technology in warehouses and yard environments may bolster confidence and commitment to driverless vehicles within the supply chain, a driver is, nonetheless, required on public roads (and likely will be for many years to come). However, the supply chain can still be heavily impacted by assisted trucking technology.

Anti-collision radar technology, increasingly common in automobiles, is now deployable in trucks for constant maintenance of safe distances for highway transport. Moreover, assisted trucking can be applied for speed governance, improving safety and fuel efficiency, as well as for in-lane piloting.

Some trucks in Europe are now essentially driverless over long distances, as radar guidance can now outsource steering over long distances to the vehicle itself, freeing the driver for rest or administrative work, much as airliners are now piloted by computers most of the time. This is intended to improve both safety and fuel efficiency (fuel savings of up to 10 percent are typical).

Finally, a fast-approaching innovation is the open road convoy, with multiple trucks networked via assisted trucking systems. Within such a convoy, the steering and speed are determined by the lead vehicle, with the goal of improving the safety and fuel efficiency for all the vehicles.

Next Steps

Driverless cars must ride on business use cases

The future of the connected vehicle

The most important tenets of supply chain management

Dig Deeper on WMS and ERP systems