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This month China’s Chang’an Automobile Engineering & Research Institute conducted a 2,000-kilometer test run of two driverless cars, The Hindu reported. The cars performed well under simple road conditions on urban driveways and highways but still needed human assistance to navigate situations such as pulling into gas stations and going through toll booths. Chang’an’s deputy director Tan Benhong says the company will work on improving its vehicles’ sensors and processing technology next in order to prepare the car for mass production.

Chang’an hopes to get a jump on Google, which plans to have its driverless cars publicly available by 2020. At least 18 companies globally are racing to get ahead in the driverless car market, which promises to radically transform transportation. In the process, driverless cars will join a number of technologies that will have an equally profound effect on logistics in the next decade.

Driverless Vehicles and Logistics

Driverless vehicles are already transforming logistics, which will lead other industries to adopt the technology, predicts German courier company DHL in a comprehensive report. Driverless vehicles are currently being used across a wide range of industries for a variety of government, commercial and consumer applications, including military minesweeping, Mars robot explorations, farming with self-driving tractors, automatic lawnmowers, parking assistant systems and public transportation pods. DHL anticipates that logistics applications of driverless vehicle technology will extrapolate from these current usages.

For years, warehousing operations have been using autonomous vehicles to move items along predetermined routes. As driverless vehicles gain the ability to navigate more complex maneuvers, DHL predicts they will become able to travel safely through busy warehouses, where they will work in combination with automated selection, loading and unloading equipment. Outdoors, driverless vehicles will be used for transporting items around yards, harbors and airports. For line-haul transportation, driver assistance systems are already being used to help truck drivers drive safely and avoid accidents by providing information about how to adjust to traffic conditions. Autonomous driving systems are also taking over for drivers of trailing vehicles in convoys. As driverless technology becomes more sophisticated, DHL expects automated systems to play an increasing role in last-mile delivery, performing functions such as navigating busy city streets, supporting vehicles delivering mail and working in conjunction with parcel loading machines. Eventually, full-fledged driverless letter and parcel delivery vehicles will be deployed. Argentus Supply estimates driverless trucks can lower freight shipping costs by as much as 40 percent per kilometer.

car technology innovations infographic

Augmented Reality Dashboards and Warehousing

A technology that will support driverless vehicles in both navigating and loading and unloading is augmented reality: the use of digital sensors and virtual reality displays to guide interactions with physical objects. Augmented reality dashboards can receive input from the environment, other vehicles and the internet to provide dashboard or windshield displays showing information about vehicles approaching from the rear and blind-spot areas, navigational maps and weather conditions. BMW is currently developing a smart car that can use augmented reality input to switch back and forth between driverless and manual driving modes.

This type of technology can support driverless logistics operations both on the road and in warehousing and loading contexts. In the warehouse, DHL predicts augmented reality will be used to streamline the picking process, which accounts for 55 to 65 percent of the cost of warehousing operations. For instance, virtual reality headgear will enable workers to automatically find items within their field of vision instead of relying on paper-based picking procedures. At other points along the shipping route, augmented reality input will allow drivers to automatically check to see if loads are complete and instantly identify boxes for delivery.

Digital Dealerships and Supply Chain Management

Another emerging technology that has the potential to support logistics is digital dealerships. Digital dealers such as DriveTime are currently using big data analytics to help consumers find and finance cars by searching on makes and models in a specific geographic location. In logistics, this type of technology can be applied to locate and schedule shipping fleet vehicles. In combination with driverless vehicles, digital dealerships can help provide for streamlined end-to-end automated delivery systems.