The Challenges of Autonomous Vehicles for Car Shipping

Busy highway in a futuristic city

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

In recent weeks, we’ve written a few blogs about innovations in the car transport industry. In this blog, we’re going to look at autonomous vehicles. They used to be something that was solely in the imagination of science fiction writers. However, while self-drive cars on the highway might be a little way off, the transportation industry is already poised to take advantage of this exciting innovation. 

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What is an autonomous vehicle?

An autonomous vehicle is capable of sensing its environment and operating without human involvement. Humans are not required to take control of the vehicle at any time and don’t need to be present. An autonomous car can go anywhere a traditional car might go and do everything an experienced human driver does.

There are 6 levels of driving automation, ranging from Level 0 to Level 5:

  • Level 0 (no automation): A human performs all the driving tasks such as steering, acceleration, and braking.
  • Level 1 (driver assistance): The vehicle has a single automated system, such as cruise control which monitors the vehicle's speed.
  • Level 2 (partial automation): The vehicle can steer and accelerate. All other tasks are monitored by a human who can take control at any time.
  • Level 3 (conditional automation): The vehicle has environmental detection capabilities. It can perform most driving tasks, but human override may still be required. 
  • Level 4 (high automation): Under specific circumstances, the vehicle can perform most driving tasks. A human override is still an option. 
  • Level 5 (full automation): All driving tasks are performed by the vehicle. No human attention or interaction is required.  

Autonomous vs. automated vs. self-driving: Is there a difference?

Automated is a term more commonly used, rather than autonomous. One important reason for this is that autonomy has far-reaching implications. For example, a fully autonomous car would be self-aware and able to make its own decisions. Imagine you told your car to “drive you to work” and it decided to take you to the beach instead. A fully automated car would follow orders and then simply drive itself. 

Self-driving, on the other hand, is a term often used interchangeably with autonomous, although it is something slightly different. A self-driving car drives itself in some or all situations. However, the presence of a human is essential in case they need to take control. A self-driving car is either Level 3 or Level 4. They are also subject to geofencing. A fully autonomous Level 5 car would be able to go anywhere.

How do autonomous vehicles work?

Autonomous vehicles use sensors, actuators, complex algorithms, machine learning systems, and powerful processors. 

Using the sensors located around the vehicle, it creates and maintains a map of its surroundings. The position of nearby vehicles is monitored by radar sensors. The vehicle uses video cameras to detect traffic lights, track other vehicles, look for pedestrians, and read road signs. 

The light detecting and ranging (lidar) sensors bounce pulses of light off the surroundings to measure distances, identify lane markings, and detect road edges. There are ultrasonic sensors on the wheels for detecting curbs and other vehicles when the autonomous vehicle is parking. 

All this information is processed by sophisticated software which then plots a path and sends the necessary instructions to the vehicle’s actuators. The actuators are what control acceleration, steering, and braking. 

The software can navigate obstacles and follow traffic rules thanks to hard-coded rules, predictive modeling, object recognition, and obstacle avoidance algorithms. 

What are the autonomous vehicle challenges?

While fully-automated cars are not yet driving on the highway, tests are ongoing in several parts of the world. That being said, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are already being used in the transportation industry. We’ll look at those shortly. 

First, let’s look at some of the challenges with autonomous vehicles. They range from legislative and technical to philosophical and environmental. 

Lidar and radar

Firstly, lidar is expensive. Also, the designers of this tool are still trying to find the right balance between range and resolution. Any challenge is when there are multiple autonomous vehicles on the road. Will their lidar signals interfere with each other? In addition, is the frequency range enough to support mass production? 

Weather conditions

How are cameras and sensors going to track lane markings if they’re covered with a layer of snow or there is heavy precipitation? Will there be issues when markings are obscured by debris, ice, oil, or water? 

Traffic conditions and laws

Are there traffic conditions that an autonomous vehicle might struggle with? Take tunnels or bridges. How will they cope when traffic is bumper-to-bumper? Will it be necessary for autonomous cars to have their own lane? Will they get access to carpool lanes?

Cyber security

Several years ago, the vulnerabilities of conventional vehicles were demonstrated when hackers brought a Jeep to a halt on a St Louis highway in the US. They wirelessly accessed its braking and steering via the onboard entertainment system. 

Self-driving cars would be an even greater risk because they get updates and maps through the cloud. As more computing permeates into everyday life, it gets harder to keep track of vulnerabilities. 

Thinking of the worst case scenario, a hacker might be able to disable someone’s car and hold it for ransom until they receive a digital payment. 

Hopefully, it will be possible for manufacturers and drivers to ensure their cars can’t get hacked. However, as we all know, our experiences over time with computers and mobile phones show that the smarter and more connected we become, the more prone we become to cyber attacks. 

Infrastructure

Radical changes to the current system of transportation are going to be required, making infrastructure pitfalls a glaring need. 

AVs often need clear lane striping, places to store the data collected by driving, and if they run on electricity, a more robust charging network will be essential.

Revenue

In their ultimate form, AVs will not run red lights, speed down the highway over the limit, or overstay metered parking spots. This will impact a city’s budget. This will force cities to generate new revenue streams in order to counteract the loss of funding. One option might be to develop a mileage tax or an AV registration tax.   

State vs. federal regulation

Autonomous cars used to be under federal guidance. However, a recent shift saw this change to state-by-state mandates. Some states are proposing a per-mile tax to prevent a massive increase in the number of autonomous cars driving around without passengers.

In other states, lawmakers have written bills proposing that autonomous cars must be zero-emission and have a panic button installed. 

Is it likely that laws will be different depending on the state? How complex will that make it if you want to cross state lines with an autonomous car?  

Accident liability

If an autonomous vehicle causes an accident, who is liable? Will it be the human passenger or the manufacturer? 

The latest blueprints are suggesting that a Level 5, fully autonomous vehicle will have no steering wheel or dashboard. This will prevent a human passenger from taking control in an emergency. 

Police and emergency response

Issues around law enforcement raise questions such as how will police officers recognize if a tailgating car is actually a series of connected AVs? It’s not hard to imagine AVs being used as drug mules to transport narcotics. It might also confuse local police departments if during a routine traffic stop, an AV is pulled over. 

A short term solution is to develop specific training procedures for police and emergency services interactions with AVs. 

Artificial vs. emotional intelligence

When a human drives a car, they are relying on non-verbal communication and subtle cues. Human drivers can make split-second decisions and predict behaviors based on facial expressions, body language, and by making eye contact with pedestrians.

Is it possible that an autonomous vehicle can replicate such a connection with the world around it? Will it have a life-saving instinct, just like a human?

Map creation and maintenance

Self driving vehicles rely on detailed pre-made maps and sensors to “see” obstacles on the road in real-time. Before any testing can be done on AVs, manufacturers first have to build detailed 3D maps of every city, town, and routes in between. 

To do this, someone has to drive a standard vehicle all over taking pictures. The images then have to be categorized into features, such as fire hydrants, intersections, and driveways. 

As you can imagine, this is an extremely time-consumer exercise. Nevertheless, it’s necessary because the maps will ensure AVs don’t get into or cause any accidents. 

In the US alone, such a task involves creating and maintaining a database of millions of minutely detailed road or street images. 

Just stop and think for a moment how much time and effort it might take to create a 3D map of the city where you live, let alone the whole world.  

What are the benefits of autonomous vehicles?

Autonomous vehicles will likely improve our lives in almost limitless ways. For example, they would give the physically disabled and elderly independence. You could send your dog to a veterinary appointment. You could get your autonomous car to deliver something you’d forgotten. 

These benefits may sound very appealing, but the most significant benefit of autonomous vehicles is that they have the potential to reduce CO@ emissions dramatically.

The benefits of autonomous vehicles in the logistics industry

Many technologies have evolved in recent years to impact the working of the logistics industry (including auto transportation). However, autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the dynamics of logistics significantly.

Some of the key benefits for the logistics and auto transport industry are as follows:

  • Improved safety
  • Increased efficiency
  • Cost-savings

Improved safety

It’s a common misconception that autonomous vehicles will be unsafe, particularly when used in the logistics industry. According to the figures, 1.4 million miles have been driven by autonomous vehicles without a single incident. 

This bears no comparison to accident rates for cars driven by humans. Autonomous vehicles eliminate driver-related errors, improve vehicle safety, and ensure goods reach their destination safely. 

Increased efficiency

Autonomous vehicles can make split-second decisions which is something most humans struggle with. Thanks to the AI technology used, autonomous vehicles can process vast amounts of data and make decisions in a few seconds. 

Such decisions might be about the best travel routes to minimize time on the road, or optimum speeds for driving. This split-second decision-making feature allows logistics companies to improve their efficiency.  

Cost-savings

With their advanced decision-making capabilities, autonomous vehicles can help save time and fuel costs. Improved safety also minimizes damage and the cost of insurance.

Are self-driving trucks a reality?

According to the American Trucking Association, there is going to be a significant shortage of truck drivers in the coming years. In addition, the eCommerce world also seems to be growing and accelerating. These are just a couple of reasons why autonomous vehicle technology could be the next big thing in the world of shipping and the auto transport industry. 

Understandably, there are some concerns about large trucks driving themselves on the highway and through busy cities. This is one reason why manufacturers are moving slowly. They want to make sure the technology is safe before releasing it. 

Some vehicles have already been tested. Here are some examples:

  • In three Southwestern states, autonomous US Postal Service trucks were tested by TuSimple, a San Diego-based startup company. The vehicles hauled mail from Phoenix and Dallas. A safety driver sat behind the wheel as a backup.
  • An advanced version of the Daimler 18-wheeler has also been tested. It was the first self-driving semi-truck to hit North American roads.
  • American Freightliner has created a prototype vehicle. So far it’s not been able to pass slower-moving vehicles on the highway. However, on the plus side, there is an alarm that notifies the driver if there is an emergency or bad weather, so they can take over.

In addition, a self-driving truck start-up based in San Francisco is working on a self-driving kit for commercial trucks that will allow drivers to sleep during long-haul trips, greatly improving productivity and safety. 

Rolls-Royce recently announced an autonomous ship with no crew. It will be remotely controlled through an augmented reality logistics command center.   

Ways autonomous vehicles can be used in shipping today

There are still some kinks to be worked out with autonomous vehicle technology, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a future in which they can be used to benefit the shipping industry. 

Mail delivery

USPS and the University of Michigan have joined forces to develop a self-driving mail truck. It is called the Autonomous Rural Delivery Vehicle. USPS would like to use these vehicles to cover around 28,000 rural mail routes by 2025. 

Last-mile delivery

Last-minute deliveries of groceries and other goods are another possibility for autonomous vehicle technology. According to statistics, large delivery vehicles count for as much as 20% of urban traffic. If companies were able to use smaller self-driving vehicles for last-mile delivery, it could cut traffic and ease congestion.

The plan would be to have larger delivery hubs located on the outskirts of cities. Mobile delivery hubs would then use smaller, self-driving vehicles or drones, to deliver goods to the final destination. 

A company that’s already started testing this idea is Boxbot in California. It is testing a last-mile delivery system combining a hub with street-based vehicles, some of which are self-driving vehicles.  

Truck platooning  

For long-haul deliveries, some trucking firms are looking at a practice known as truck platooning. A series of trucks follow each other in a platoon. A driver-controlled truck leads several automatic trucks.     

With truck platooning, adaptive cruise control and forward-collision warning technology can be used through direct short-range communication. 

A study by MIT found that truck platooning could save as much as 20% on fuel costs. It could also increase scheduling efficiency if trucks are released in platoons at regular intervals.

Transfer hubs

Manufacturers and the trucking industry are also considering self-driving vehicles for long-haul routes using a transfer hub model. This model utilizes shipment yards directly connected to highways that allow autonomous trucks. 

Short-haul drivers would be used to transport shipments from a warehouse or factory to a transfer hub. From there, autonomous trucks would then transport cargo over a highway. Once the shipment reaches the appropriate transport hub, a local short-haul driver would haul the goods for the last part of the journey. 

There could be benefits of this approach for the car shipping industry. Autonomous trucks driving between transfer hubs would be able to operate around the clock, thereby making long-haul routes more efficient. Potentially, they would also reduce transportation costs. 

Should the US widely allow autonomous trucks on the highway, as much as 50% of freight could be moved using transfer hubs. This would mean fewer vehicles would be required and the overall US truck fleet could be shrunk by as much as 13%.

In the auto transport industry, autonomous vehicles are still a way off, however, it looks likely they will be coming. 

Here at SGT Auto Transport, we wait with bated breath for the next advancement. There are challenges to adopting autonomous vehicle technology, but exciting times are ahead. 

If you need to ship a car any time soon, it’s not likely going to be an autonomous truck that hauls your car. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t provide a safe, secure, speedy, and affordable service. 

Before you make other arrangements, use our instant quote calculator to find out how much it costs to ship a car cross-country. You might be pleasantly surprised.

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