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Autonomous Drayage Anyone?

It seems impossible to read a trade journal or attend a conference without a discussion of autonomous vehicles and what they might mean for the freight industry. Despite occasional setbacks and incidents, there have been enormous strides made in autonomous vehicle technology.

The popular images of port drayage are the long lines of trucks waiting to enter a terminal and the congested freeways. If that is what drayage is about then maybe autonomous vehicles make a lot of sense. They can operate 24 hours a day with occasional electricity breaks, and they will never get impatient while waiting at the trouble window.

There are already autonomous vehicles in use at some terminals to shuttle containers between cranes and stacks.

While most articles on autonomous vehicles focus on convenience, the most important advantage is probably their safety features. The collision avoidance and adaptive speed control of an autonomous vehicle probably have applications in the busy terminal environment, and the industry should find a way to use those safety features. But can that vehicle manage itself in a queue between the stacks and move under the lift machine when its turn comes? How does it interact with the groundman?

An autonomous truck tractor can probably back up and attach to a chosen chassis, but can that tractor find a roadworthy chassis and hook up the brakes and lights? Crank up the landing gear? Can an autonomous vehicle inspect an empty container for debris or damage? How does an autonomous vehicle get a broken taillight lens fixed?

When the autonomous vehicle arrives at the customer, how does it know where to drop the container on its chassis? How does it unhook the brake lines and crank down the landing gear? How does it know which empty to pull and where to find it? How does it hook up? How does the customer tell an autonomous vehicle that there has been a change in plans?

Autonomous vehicles might indeed be very good at waiting in line and in navigating the open road between the outgate and the customer. But those are the easy parts of drayage.

Dan Smith is a Principal with The Tioga Group:

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