Industrial mobility: How autonomous vehicles can change manufacturing

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Automating how we move things

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.

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“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.”

Greg Roger - Policy Analyst at the Eno Center for Transportation (PwC interview)

Explore industrial mobility further

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.

Key findings from the survey

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:

  • Just 9% of manufacturers have adopted some type of semi-autonomous or autonomous mobility within their operations, with another 10% expecting to do so in the next three years
  • The top trigger for manufacturers to adopt industrial mobility technologies (i.e., from mobile robots to autonomous trucks) is cost advantage (86%) followed by customer/supply expectations (47%) and increased safety (38%)
  • Nearly 60% of manufacturers cite cost as one of the top barriers of adoption of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles within their plants, followed by immature technology (42%), safety issues (32%) and lack of talent (32%)
  • Roughly 90% of US manufacturers believe that fully autonomous trucks could, when mainstreamed, save up to 25% of their total trucking costs
  • PwC analysis finds that US investment in private mobility companies over the last five years totaled $6.8 billion in the 2012-2017 period--with $2.6 billion invested in companies developing technology supporting autonomous passenger vehicles development (self-driving autos) and $4.2 billion in companies focused on technology for broad-use, non-auto autonomous mobility.
  • PwC analysis estimates autonomous, long-haul trucking could save manufacturers nearly 30% in total transportation costs through 2040, assuming aggressive adoption of autonomous trucking. 

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Inside the factory walls

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.

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Out in the public domain

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.

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An industrial mobility self-assessment

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.

  • Do you have a designated role(s) assigned to developing and deploying the adoption of advanced industrial mobility? (If you do not, you’re in good company: according to our survey, only 9% of manufacturers have one and only 4% plan to designate a role in the next year.)
  • How broadly across your organization do you currently reach (or plan to do so in the future) to solicit input on evaluating and decision-making surrounding industrial mobility?
  • What are you doing now to prepare your workforce to adopt industrial mobility within your operations to ensure safety and fully leverage the technology?
  • Have you worked with your logistics vendors and/or your in-house logistics and transportation team to explore how autonomous freight transport could affect your business?
  • Have you identified tasks/operations within your facilities that are prime candidates for semi-autonomous and fully autonomous vehicles?
  • Have you explored what kinds of costs savings (e.g., labor, health insurance, efficiencies) your company might experience through industrial mobility (mobile robots, unmanned aerial vehicles) within your operations?
  • Have you considered small, do-able pilots within your operation to test industrial mobility technology to ensure it is right for you?
  • Have you considered adopting semi-autonomous industrial mobility technology as a hybrid solution to prepare your workforce for fully autonomous vehicles (e.g., forklifts which require an operator yet have some autonomous functions)?
  • Have you considered the impact semi-autonomous/autonomous vehicles may have on your workforce—for example, surrounding safety matters or upskilling and/or talent recruitment initiatives?
  • Has your company thought through the ethical implications of driverless vehicles which make decisions based on algorithms—and not human judgment?

Download your industrial mobility self assessment worksheet

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Contact us

Bobby Bono

Industrial Manufacturing leader, PwC US

Tel: +1 (813) 222 7118

Andrew Tipping

Principal, Enterprise Strategy, PwC US

Tel: +1 (312) 298 4916

Todd Benigni

Principal, Operations Consulting, PwC US

Tel: +1 (312) 298 3192

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