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Picture it: you’re on the highway and you zip past a group of four sleek trucks driving closely behind each other. As you pass them, you notice there isn’t a driver in sight. They’re autonomous trucks engaged in platooning – the term for this kind of digitally steered convoy – and even the goods they’re transporting were packed by robots.

This seemingly futuristic scenario is closer than you might think, given the advances we’re seeing in the technology and infrastructure for autonomous trucking and automated warehouse operations. They’re creating new ways for logistics organizations to become more efficient and productive.

Autonomy and automation in logistics

The global logistics automation market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 11.9% between 2021 and 2030 to reach USD 147.4 billion. In particular, the software segment of this market is forecast to be the most robust in this period, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.9%.

This rapid growth is fueled by the rise of ecommerce and order fulfillment, among other Industry 4.0-related trends, while advanced robotics applications such as automated guided vehicles, mobile robots and robot arms are fast gaining traction.

In this article, I focus on the adoption of autonomous trucking technology in goods transportation, and on advances in IoT and robotics for automation in logistics.

Keep on trucking – but without humans

In 2021 the American Trucking Associations estimated there was a shortage of about 80,000 truck drivers in the US, which could exceed 160,000 by 2030. Demand is extremely high because more than 70% of all US freight is moved by truck.

Self-driving technology can address this shortage while delivering other benefits to logistics and public infrastructure providers, such as fuel efficiency, reduced delivery times, an improved traffic flow and increased safety (human error accounts for more than 90% of all road accidents in the US). In fact, many states in the US are already piloting projects to upgrade their road infrastructure to support autonomous trucking.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that platooning can save up to 20% on fuel costs. Adding to that, McKinsey reports that fully autonomous trucks could cut the total cost of truck ownership by up to 45%. Logistics organizations such as DHL and self-driving-truck startups such as Kodiak Robotics and TuSimple are developing the technology.

Autonomous trucks will be rolled out in four waves, with the first fully autonomous vehicles expected by 2027 and each wave progressively lowering the total cost of ownership. The first two waves will introduce platooning, the third will deliver constrained autonomy (uncrewed trucks driving on interstate highways) and the fourth will feature fully autonomous trucks.

3 use cases for autonomous trucks

  • Connected transfer hubs: A short-haul driver transports a shipment from a warehouse or factory to a transfer hub. From here, an autonomous truck transports the cargo along a highway. Once the truck reaches its destination transport hub, a local short-haul driver takes over to finish the delivery.
  • Mobile hub-and-spoke for last-mile delivery: Mobile delivery hubs can be placed on the outskirts of urban areas. A driver drops off a package at a mobile delivery hub, and from there a person, a drone or a self-driving vehicle transports the package to its final destination. For example, California start-up Boxbot offers last-mile delivery by combining an automated local hub with a fleet of street-based vehicles, some of which are self-driving electric vehicles.
  • Mail transport and delivery: While the trucking industry focuses on long-haul routes, specific industries need self-driving vehicles to increase their productivity and cut fuel costs. Take the US Postal Service, which has partnered with the University of Michigan to plan a fleet of self-driving mail trucks for rural delivery routes. These semiautonomous trucks would have a human mail-carrier on board, but they won’t do the bulk of the driving, giving them more time to sort mail for delivery.

Robots help improve workplace safety in warehouses

The age of the automated warehouse

Warehouse operators are adopting automation technologies to boost productivity and fulfill orders faster. The warehouse automation market is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 14.8% between 2022 and 2030 to reach USD 64.6 billion.

Growth in the ecommerce market has led to an increase in the number and size of warehouses, accompanied by a surge in the adoption of IoT and robotics for automation.

Robots help improve workplace safety in warehouses while optimizing storage, increasing productivity and automating replenishment, among other tasks. The trend is toward true autonomy, with connected and mobile equipment performing increasingly complex tasks with little or no human supervision.

In 2022, nearly a quarter (23%) of logistics and material-handling organizations were already using robots in their warehouses, while another 21% planned to do so by 2025, according to Peerless Research Group.

For example, Locus Robotics will provide 1,000 autonomous mobile “LocusBots” to transportation and logistics provider GEODIS by 2024, having already supplied 2,000 AI-powered robots to global logistics organization DHL, too.

And, in the UK, Royal Mail has started rolling out its first automated parcel-sorting machines, which can each process 157,000 parcels per day.

It is predicted that nearly 50,000 robots will be shipped to warehouses by 2026, according to ABI Research, with the global logistics robot market expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 16.4% between 2021 and 2028 to reach USD 17.8 billion.

3 use cases for warehouse robots

  • Robotic picking, packing and palletizing: Without human assistance, robots can pick items from static shelves, package items and palletize products on production lines.
  • Container loading and unloading: This is similar to palletizing, but instead of organizing packages on a pallet, robots can load and unload shipping containers.
  • Last-mile drone delivery: The logistics industry is exploring options such as drones and delivery bots for last-mile delivery to combat rising fuel and labor costs, lower vehicle emissions and meet ever-more-demanding delivery schedules.

Meet the robots: what can they do?

  • Automated guided vehicles (AGVs): Forklifts and other warehouse vehicles have always needed human drivers, but AGVs can replace them and navigate a warehouse by using embedded markers or other physical guidance mechanisms.
  • Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs): These robots use lidar or infrared sensors and onboard cameras to generate their own routes, making them autonomous and highly efficient.
  • Drones: Aerial robots that can access hard-to-reach or unsafe areas of a warehouse are ideal for machine-vision applications such as inventory scanning.
  • Articulated robotic arms: These robots are just arms, which are sometimes attached to a wheeled base for transportation. They are used to pick and pack items, assemble components, unload containers or construct pallets.
  • Automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS): These robots are designed with mobility in mind. Moving on fixed tracks, they use cranes or lifters to move along warehouse aisles and retrieve products from large racks.
  • Goods-to-person (G2P) vehicles: Warehouses no longer need to send employees to shelves to pull items. Instead, the workers stay in the same place while the G2P vehicle delivers the items to them.
  • Collaborative robots (cobots): These are industrial robots that have been designed to work alongside or interact with humans. They have a variety of applications – including assembly, packaging automation, material handling and product quality control – and can be simpler to set up and operate than autonomous robots.

Laying the foundation for the logistics of the future

These are exciting times for the logistics industry. The digital infrastructure to enable connected, autonomous trucking is developing rapidly thanks to investment from both the public and private sectors, while automation in warehouse operations is fast evolving as AI and machine-learning technologies mature.

At NTT, our network and connectivity technologies – including private 5G and edge and cloud computing platforms – lay the foundation for the platforms and infrastructure needed to support this revolution in logistics. Importantly, we also work with our clients to design, implement and manage these solutions, which means they don’t need in-house expertise and have constant access to innovation in this area.

Don’t let the self-driving truck pass you by. Get in touch now to see how we can help your organization thrive.