Uber’s logistical revolution – not its self-driving tech – is set to disrupt long-haul trucking

  • Self-driving has attracted big names and high tech
  • The consensus sees transfer hubs as the future of freight delivery
  • The logistical challenges are a nightmare
  • But Uber has a secret weapon: Uber Freight

Trucking is the strongest link in the freight transportation supply chain. In 2015, for instance, the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS) reported that nearly 10 billion tonnes of goods were shipped by truck, dwarfing all other forms of transport combined. Even with the growth of technologies like 3D printing and drones, enabling on-site manufacturing and easing the burden on local deliveries, trucking will retain its heavyweight title. In fact, the experts at the BTS predict that by 2045, those 10 billion will climb to a number closer to 15.

Big trucks are here to stay, and their role in the economy is set to continue to grow. But as self-driving systems mature, we anticipate a transformation of the industry. It’s pretty clear that long-haul human drivers are an endangered species, but the details of this extinction have as much to do with efficiency and logistics as tech. Often overlooked, it’s actually hard-headed logistical planning that’s transforming the business of automated trucking, quietly upstaging the flashier hardware and software in the trucks. In fact, there’s been something of a silent revolution brewing in the freight logistics industry since 2016, and it’s shaping-up to disrupt the old ways of doing business.

Self-driving has attracted big names and high tech

The list of names betting on this tech is impressive, including companies as stable and serious as Volvo, and radical innovators like Tesla. As Alex Davies writes for Wired, “That’s because trucking is, as they say in the Valley, ripe for disruption: Americans are shipping more and more stuff. There aren’t nearly enough drivers to move it all, and the shortage will only get worse over time.” These realities are drawing competitors from far and wide, but amongst these, one company enjoys a clear advantage: Uber. And this leg-up has nothing to do with self-driving systems.

The science of self-driving tech is advancing rapidly. The LIDAR systems, cameras, and sensors that guide the trucks on the highway, and the smart algorithms that interpret this data and make decisions, are already proving themselves on the highways of Arizona. But that’s the easy part. Andrew J. Hawkins, writing for The Verge, notes that “Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, which oversees all of the company’s self-driving efforts, said that its vehicles have collectively driven 2 million miles.” That’s all happening in the real world, not on test tracks, and the tech is already delivering the goods, literally. Maintaining safe speeds and following distances, sticking to an assigned lane, and even detecting and avoiding highway hazards are pretty simple tasks for cutting-edge self-driving systems. The hard part is when they’re asked to leave the fast-lane and navigate a surface street. As Davies explains, “The consensus among the companies trying to take trucking robo is that all that stuff is simply too hard.”

A white Volvo self-driving truck cruising down the highway
The LIDAR systems, cameras, and sensors that guide the trucks on the highway, and the smart algorithms that interpret this data and make decisions, are already proving themselves on the highways of Arizona.

The consensus sees transfer hubs as the future of freight delivery

Experts don’t see that changing anytime soon. “Uber’s self-driving trucks aren’t advanced enough for dock-to-dock runs, and they won’t be for a long time,” he says. Instead, these mavericks are taking a page from maritime freight. While in the open ocean, the captains of these sea-freight behemoths are in command. But when one of these monsters approaches port, a harbour pilot takes over, using their intimate knowledge of the shoals, shallows, and port traffic to keep the giant vessels out of harm’s way. Uber and its rivals want to do the same thing with robo-trucking. Essentially, the self-driving systems will handle the long-haul on the open road, picking up and dropping off containers for local, human drivers. These ‘transfer hubs’ will be the meeting point, the critical juncture uniting self-driving systems and professional truckers. And like maritime pilots, the professionals will deliver the freight safely to dock, leaving the automated trucks to return to the relative safety of the highway.

The logistical challenges are a nightmare

This gets around a host of technical and legal challenges, and simplifies the process a lot — with one glaring issue remaining. Shipping empty containers is a losing proposition, and to get the most bang for the trucking buck, these self-driving systems need to be pulling their weight in both directions. That sounds simple, but it’s actually a logistical nightmare. As Davies warns, “There are times and places where cargo tends to head in one direction: A lot more stuff leaves California on trucks than enters it (because so much comes in by ship), for example.”

Every competitor needs their trucks as full as they can get them, wherever they may be headed. Uber’s plan is to have those transport hubs attaching full trailers every time a truck pulls in, a carefully orchestrated feat of efficiency that could revolutionise supply chain management. But this is also the kind of logistical problem that takes real genius and innovation to solve. It’s also the source of Uber’s advantage.

But Uber has a secret weapon: Uber Freight

You’re probably familiar with Uber’s ride-hailing service. But it’s also been in the trucker-hailing business since 2016. In an industry where phone calls – that’s right, phone calls – are still the standard, Uber Freight’s app offers one-touch connection to a trucker ready to deliver your goods. That’s a game-changing idea, pure and simple, but what Uber’s been doing with it is nothing short of genius. After collecting data on shipments for the last two years, it has amassed the information it needs to make that complex logistical problem solvable. Davies thinks this might have been the whole point of the app, its real purpose all along. “Uber has reached a point of logistical savvy where it can send shipments in two directions. It may not sound like much, but it’s a necessary first step toward the whirling, perfectly choreographed, nationwide ballet of efficiency Uber has in mind,” he explains.

It’s not the self-driving tech that’ll make for winners and losers in tomorrow’s trucking industry. With players like Tesla and Volvo, solutions to the technical obstacles are a sure thing. Rather, it’s the quiet logistical know-how that’ll separate profit-making from wheel-spinning, and in this revolution, Uber has a clear lead.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

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