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Lonely drive Illustration: Magnilion

Autonomous trucks could transform the night

If we focus our collective energy on running autonomous vehicles on the major highways at night, then we can dramatically increase the utilization rate of the expensive equipment.

Right after the first of the year, I had a chance to view a factory in the middle of our country. It did everything from printed circuit board assembly, to plastic injection molding, to stamping, to automated and manual assembly. It used robots, inspection cameras, computerized networks with feedback. Parts moved with lift trucks, with automatic conveyors, and with people’s hands. I was told I probably walked over three miles for the factory tour. That’s about the same as when I walk a round of 18 in golf, to give some perspective.

I love to work in the areas of technology, manufacturing, and transportation. I’ve been lucky enough throughout my career to put the three together. Just this last month, in Las Vegas, two of the three were put together at CES. I’d like to bring in the third item, manufacturing, to the discussion.

When I was on the plant tour, I watched and listened to the machines. I wanted to get an idea of the utilization rate of the machines. Machines cost lots of money and have to be treated as capital equipment with depreciation. Some factories I’ve been in over the last few years have moved to 10 hours a day, 4 days a week to help workers balance home and life.

I come from the Detroit area. My family all worked in the automotive factories. Forty hours a week, whether done as eight hours a day, five days a week, or 10 hours a day, four days a week, is not pushing the machines much. I often remember my dad working 58 hours a week. That was 10 hours a day 5 days a week and another 8 hours on Saturday. Oh, and he was on the second or third shift! That’s a high rate of utilization of both human capital and machines. I recall that the auto industry wanted to be running around 90 percent, leaving some time for equipment maintenance.

I look at our regulations for driving that expensive machine called a tractor-trailer combination vehicle that costs something like $180,000 combined, and am astonished that it typically operates at less than 50% utilization based on 11 hours driving time per day. Teams are an option, but not one that represents a high percentage of the industry. With relay operations, the trailer can be moving much higher than 50%.

Now, let’s look more closely at those off hours and what can be done with them for the benefit of our industry and for society in general. I was listening to a replay of the press conference for my former employer, Daimler Trucks. I heard them say something about autonomous vehicles and night. It dawned on me (all pun intended) that there is a wonderful solution that will help us all.

If we focus our collective energy on running autonomous vehicles on the major highways at night, then we can dramatically increase the utilization rate of the expensive equipment, even if we have to pay extra for all the sensors and actuators that autonomy requires. Secondly, if we put more truck traffic onto the highways at night, they will be able to average higher speeds than they can in dense, daytime traffic. Third, with few vehicles and people on the highway at night, the safety of autonomous vehicles is improved. And, fourth, we all benefit from fewer trucks on the road in the daytime slowing us all down.

When we see the first autonomous truck operation, level 4, going from the entrance ramp to the exit ramp overnight, that will be a night to remember.

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