Study shows huge benefits from autonomous trucking

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by Emily Atkins

A new study looking at autonomous trucking has determined that under some circumstances it could net cost reductions in the range of 29 to 40 percent.

Ryder System, Inc. worked with researchers in transportation and mobility at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE) at Georgia Tech to understand how to approach autonomy and the potential return on investment. The result, based on real-world data,shows significant cost-savings.

“I’ve worked on a lot of different transportation problems in the past, and if you have one percent improvement that’s magic,” says Pascal Van Hentenryck, A. Russell Chandler III chair and professor and associate chair for innovation and entrepreneurship at ISyE.

“Here we’re talking about 29 to 40 percent, so it’s massive. It’s really massive.”

Analyzing real-world data from Ryder’s dedicated transportation network in the Southeast, Van Hentenryck and his team developed an Autonomous Transfer Hub Network (ATHN) for the region that combines autonomous trucks on highways with conventional trucking operations for the first and final miles.

Watch a video illustrating the study

The team then introduced optimization models for routing and dispatching and evaluated the proposed autonomous network by comparing it with existing operations under various assumptions. The analyses indicate the ATHN with optimization technology, can reduce costs by 29 to 40 percent for a large network (depending on the price of autonomous trucks as well as the direct and indirect cost of operating them).

“The team looked at our dedicated transportation network, where trucks and drivers are committed to specific customers. While that particular transportation model guarantees capacity 24/7, it also creates situations where our customers’ trucks haul empty trailers,” says Karen Jones, chief marketing officer and head of new product innovation for Ryder.

Fewer empty miles

The researchers’ ATHN and optimization models significantly reduced the number of miles driven with empty trailers, which accounts for a large part of the cost reduction.

“In the transfer hub network, there is no need to return back empty after a delivery, and there is no need to limit working hours or to return to a domicile at the end of the day,” says Van Hentenryck.

“As a result, only 35 percent of the automated distance is driven empty, compared to 50 percent. This means that even if autonomous trucks would be as expensive as trucks with drivers, costs would still go down by 10 percent.”

The study found additional cost savings came from reduced labour costs and idle time. Researchers also factored in increased flexibility in delivery appointments to keep autonomous trucks moving around the clock.

“In addition to the significant projected cost savings, I think this study is particularly notable because it is based on real-world data and addresses real industry challenges,” says Jones.

“It’s clear that, in order to realize the full benefit of autonomous trucking, shippers, receivers, and 3PLs will need to evolve today’s operating practices to meet the needs of tomorrow’s robotic trucks.”

The study with ISyE underscores the importance of several pilot projects that Ryder has announced with autonomous trucking companies Embark, Gatik, TuSimple, and Waymo.

“Our goal with these strategic alliances and our collaboration with ISyE is to help accelerate autonomous trucking nationwide. If you think about ever-escalating consumer demands combined with capacity constraints, driver shortages, and regulatory and safety pressures, autonomous technology is on track to solve a host of industry disruptions,” says Jones.

“I think the work of Pascal and his team shows that we’re on the right track, and to have that kind of validation from world-class researchers at the top school for industrial and systems engineering—that’s priceless.”