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Smart trucks are going to need smarter roads…and smarter workers

20 February, 2018

Competition among automakers to bring next-generation, smart semi-trucks to market intensified in 2017, with long-time industry leaders such as Volvo, Mercedes and Cummins (as well as upstarts such as Tesla) announcing new vehicles. As these manufacturers and others vie to fulfill the promise of autonomous trucking – lower costs, greater efficiency and safety, fewer delay – it becomes more likely that difficult technological challenges, such as the development of sufficiently powerful (and ubiquitous) artificial intelligence (AI), will be eventually sorted out. That should make anyone who could benefit from autonomous trucking happy.

But, as it turns out, better AI isn’t necessarily top-of-mind for businesses assessing the potential benefits of autonomous vehicles. While 69% of respondents in a survey by PwC and the Manufacturing Institute said technological immaturity was the biggest barrier to adoption of autonomous trucks, that’s not where they see the biggest need for investment in the space. Instead, more businesses who participated in our study (64%) would like to see increased funding for smart infrastructure than greater investment in AI, sensors, or vehicle-to-vehicle communications.

To be sure, such advanced infrastructure investments are already taking place. Ohio, for example, has earmarked $15 million to install fiber optic cable and sensor systems in roads. GM is currently piloting – with Michigan’s Macomb County Department of Roads – vehicles that receive data from traffic lights, alerting drivers of a potential moving violation. Still, these are local solutions to a nationwide need. And since semi- and fully autonomous trucks will ultimately have to traverse interstate highways, county roads and local streets to deliver goods and provide maximum value to their operators, a piecemeal approach is likely to hinder adoption. Patchwork deployment of smart infrastructure deployment is, fundamentally, more of a political and policy-driven challenge than a technological one.

The importance of vehicle-to-infrastructure communication in the eyes of businesses illustrates a key reality surrounding the disruptive potential of industrial mobility – a term we use to describe technologies enabling the autonomous movement of goods on both private property like factory floors as well as via public roads, waterways and airspace. While many of the hurdles to adoption are technical, some of the most nettlesome are not.

Take training, for another example. A majority of respondents said their employees needed to learn new safety protocols or software programming skills, to adopt new workflows, or to receive specialized training from the vehicles’ manufacturers – or all of the above.

To be in the best position to benefit as autonomous trucks revolutionize the supply chain (both in and outside the factory), companies will need to make sure they’re paying close attention to all the problems smarter machines can’t solve.