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Self-drive vehicles – taking a load off your mind

Self-driving vehicles will change the world of logistics. The question is no longer "if" but "when" – and we're in the pole position when it comes to innovation and the future of this technology.

Our latest trend report, Self-Driving Vehicles in Logistics, takes you on a journey of discovery, shining the headlights on the technology's key elements, benefits and limitations, as well as on best-practice applications and specific use cases across the entire logistics value chain.

Imagine you're stuck in agonizingly slow traffic. There's nothing you can do but inch forward along with everyone else. Now imagine switching your car to auto pilot, leaning your seat back and tackling all those emails that filled up your inbox overnight. Or how about reading the newspaper or even taking a quick nap?

Although it might not sound so far-fetched nowadays, most of us still think scenarios like this are reserved for science-fiction movies. In reality, self-driving vehicles are already in use today in many industries. Moving onto public roads is the next evolutionary step.

The logistics industry is one of the most ideal working environments for self-driving vehicles. And you can certainly say we're early adopters because we've been using them for several years in some warehousing operations, and we're integrating the advances more rapidly than many other industries.

Where else could we put the technology to use? I think autonomous vehicles could be effective in any enclosed area where goods are loaded and transported. And what about relatively isolated and remote outdoor locations where harsh conditions and long hours put human drivers at risk? Beyond that I also see potential in line-haul transportation and last-mile delivery. And, well, further down the road the sky is the limit.

That said, considerable catching up is still required in terms of regulations, public acceptance, and liability. But once these things are in place, the trend will really be ready to hit the roads.

DHL self-driveReport conclusions:

In the near future, we are likely to see enhancements to existing driver assistance functions, with a particularly strong focus on safety.

Next, we can anticipate the introduction of autonomous driving in specific situations – for example, on congested highways and with strict low speed limits at first, although speeds will be allowed to increase over time. In parallel, or soon after situation-specific autonomous driving, we should see an increase in low-speed driverless passenger transportation vehicles in non-public areas.

Looking further into the future, we could start to see the first fully autonomous highway journeys, 24/7. These vehicles will come when called, travel in convoy, communicate with each other, and even follow you around!

Several improvements can be anticipated, including greater precision in digital mapping, better algorithms to predict the behavior of other road users, and additional system flexibility for easier integration and deployment.

Alongside technology development, we may see a gradual reduction in current legal and liability framework gaps, along with more widespread public acceptance of autonomous driving.

Despite the current technical, regulatory, and societal hurdles to the uptake of driverless vehicles, some compelling use cases have already emerged in many different industries, clearly indicating a broad willingness to develop and deploy autonomous technology.

One pioneering example is at the Hamburg Harbor Container Terminal Altenwerder in Germany, which is one of the most modern container handling facilities in the world.

Container handling is almost completely automated. A total of 84 driverless vehicles transport containers between the wharf and the storage areas via the fastest possible routes. Navigation is performed using 19,000 transponders that are installed in the ground. This greatly increases the speed and efficiency of container handling in comparison to traditional transport methods using trucks and cranes.

And if any organizations in any industries dare to adopt a revolutionary approach, the pace of development could increase dramatically.

As the speed of adoption increases, particularly in the ideal working environments of the logistics industry, it is clear that logistics service providers can have a key role to play.

- Markus Kückelhaus is trend team leader and director Research & Development, DHL Customer Solutions & Innovation.

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