In August 2019, UPS, one of the worlds largest logistics companies, announced that it was using autonomous trucks to move cargo across three American cities over a distance of 185 KM.
Autonomy seems to be the buzzword of this decade. Advances in AI and IoT have enabled rapid expansion of technology in robotics and especially autonomous vehicles.
Carmakers and tech startups have raised billions of dollars to create autonomous solutions for applications in passenger-carrying and cargo. According to the Verge, General Motor’s self-driving car division raised USD 1.16 billion for research and development. Tesla has advanced research into autonomy as well.
The complex role of a Trailer driver
There is more to driving a truck than simply driving. There are numerous operations that require the driver such as loading, off-loading, documentation, handling customs procedures, fuelling and roadblocks.
Intuition still plays a key role in getting goods to a location in time. For instance, distance and time are something AI could factor in its calculations. However, varying geography could be something harder to account for without human intuition. 300 km to Kisumu, a trip generally downhill is not the same as 300 kilometres through the hilly terrain of Embu.
The complexity of logistics in Africa also makes drivers crucial. From our own experience moving cargo to Goma in the DRC, it takes 18 days on the road for instance. A comparable trip from Rotterdam to Budapest would take just one. Between Mombasa and Goma, there are three border crossings each in need of clearance and dozens of roadblocks. Our transporters have been a crucial part of reducing the overall time of delivery using their experience and intuition to get through customs and law enforcement efficiently while still complying to our legal obligations.
Skilled, experienced drivers are also the ultimate tool in delivering great customer experience in Freight. The driver is the custodian of cargo throughout the trip. He or she is the man on the ground so to speak, handling any challenges as they arise and providing information to shippers and support teams backing them up. Drivers today are responsible for the condition of goods. In our case, the driver helps keep a record of the condition and quantities of goods at the loading and off-loading points. Drivers also drive in-person interactions with customers both at the loading and off-loading points.
There are different levels of autonomy and more of it does not necessarily mean fewer drivers. Currently, in Kenya at least it is safe to say there is little to no autonomy in truck driving. Most drivers at best have power steering, assisted braking and other basic features but have to handle driving tasks by themselves. More advanced trailer models offer comforts like cruise control. Research into AI is leading to cars getting smarter. More than ever vehicles are closer to conditional and high autonomy. That is, they can handle most driving tasks under normal conditions but still need a driver to be present and intervene in case of anything. Most experts agree that full autonomy is over a decade away. Human skill will still be necessary to navigate rough terrain and complicated urban environments.
That being said. Smarter vehicles will change driving. One obvious benefit if is increased safety. Kenya has some of the most dangerous roads on the continent. Assisted driving will help limit human error, the leading cause of road accidents. It might even mean that drivers spend less time away from home as trucks can go it alone over long stretches on highways with few unforeseeable obstacles. Eventually, it might be possible for drivers to take over different towns or simply during the loading and offloading process.
A more immediate impact technology is having today is the consolidation of a fragmented logistics sector. Online logistics platforms such as Sendy provide a central market place where businesses can find vetted transporters. Businesses are also demanding visibility over their cargo as it gets transported to improve transparency and safety. Tracking technology has been in existence for decades, but the internet and smartphones have enabled both truck owners and shippers to keep tabs on their assets conveniently in real-time.