The popular fascination with self-driving passenger cars has opened a new era of how we envision moving people. Meanwhile, a parallel lane has also opened: automating how we move things. While we have yet to marvel at convoys of driverless and digitally connected eighteen-wheelers, or even set cargo-hoisting drones aflight, they seem nearly visible on the horizon.
With about 16 billion tons of goods and commodities shipped annually in the US, a wide group of players—large industrials, start-ups, state and municipal governments to name a few—are rushing to develop and deploy automated and, ultimately, autonomous transport of goods, including raw materials, parts and finished product.
We call this industrial mobility, and it covers a wide swath of transportation modes—from mobile and autonomous robots on factory floors, to autonomous trucking, drones, rail and marine transport in public roads, air space, tracks and waterways. It’s important to point out that, while this report considers industrial mobility deployment both in private facilities and in the public domain, we do believe that as technology is embraced, the line dividing private and public industrial mobility deployment is already blurring and will continue to do so.
“I think the technology to support autonomous long-haul trucking technology will approach maturity in the next five to ten years. However, we’re still 10 to 20 years off from having fully driverless trucks from being a common sight on the roads. I think the fear of displacing human workers and the general public’s initial safety concerns will keep drivers in the trucks for at least another decade, maybe two, beyond that.”
To get a sharper view of where we are and where we’re going in industrial mobility, PwC and The Manufacturing Institute (MI) carried out a survey of 128 large and mid-sized US manufacturers and transportation companies.
We found that, while automated and autonomous mobility technologies are being developed and piloted—and, in some cases, already commercially available—manufacturers seem very much at the early stages of the adoption curve. Most manufacturers seem poised in a “wait-and-see” mode, but do expect to adopt autonomous mobility solutions once they become affordable and are proven to be reliable and safe and to demonstrate returns on investment.
Key findings of the PwC/MI Industrial Mobility Survey include:
Increasingly, semi-autonomous and even fully autonomous vehicles within manufacturing operations (and, in the field, such as in mining) are gaining independence. These can include an ever-growing list: free-range AGVs, mobile robots, autonomous forklifts and cranes—and even low-payload drones. Still, only one in ten manufacturers currently uses semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicles within their operations, our survey finds, yet an additional 10% plan to do so in the next three years. While a 20% adoption rate in three years may appear paltry, that figure nevertheless suggests manufacturers are on a path leading toward the mainstreaming—considered by some to be attained at 30% adoption of a given technology—of automated/autonomous vehicle technology.
The US freight transportation system is massive and sprawling. In 2015, some 16 billion tons of commodities and goods were transported on America’s roads, rails, waterways and air cargo. With nearly 70% of all freight (or nearly 10 billion tons) transported in the US carried by trucks, the future of automated and autonomous trucking may hold important implications for manufacturers going forward. Mainstreamed use of fully autonomous trucks (attaining an adoption rate of at least 30%) on both our highways and in last-mile, urban environments, may still be decades off. According to our survey, 65% of manufacturers believe autonomous trucks will be mainstreamed in the next decade. Meanwhile, advancing levels of driver-assisted technologies are becoming common—including active braking assistance, adaptive cruising, or even cameras to check truckers’ eyes for sleep-prevention, alarming them if signs of sleepiness are detected. Indeed, our survey found that 5% of US manufacturers are now using semi-autonomous trucks and about 12% plan to do so in the next three years. Looking ahead, though, in a world in which self-driving trucks are mainstreamed and proven as safe and viable, two-thirds of US manufacturers would expect them to still be in a “wait-and-see” mode and one in four do not ever expect to use self-driving trucking.
Below are a few questions manufacturers may consider as they explore how and why they might fit into the industrial mobility ecosystem—and what they might do now to prepare for what may come down the road.