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Our self-driving future is being shaped in ports

March 21, 2018

Container terminals are closed, structured environments that provide ideal conditions for the deployment of vehicles that can navigate without human input. Public roads and congested city centers may be next. Self-driving cars have been in the making for several decades, and are now starting to become mainstream. After revolutionizing freight transport, could automation technology do the same for personal travel?

Autopilot, Tesla’s autonomous driving feature, aims to assist motorists on highways through sensors, video cameras and GPS. Waymo, the autonomous vehicle division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has begun to operate minivans on public roads in Arizona without humans behind the wheel.

Bloomberg reports that Uber has agreed to buy 24,000 sport utility vehicles from Volvo Cars to form a fleet of driverless cars. Meanwhile, cities such as Las Vegas, San Francisco and Helsinki are expanding their experiments with automation technology by offering members of the public free rides on self-driving shuttle mini-buses.

These newest developments, however, are only the latest in a long history of robotic vehicles. The first experiments with unmanned, radio-controlled automobiles were conducted as far back as the 1920s, and the first fully autonomous cars – prototypes that drove themselves instead of relying on artificial guidance, such as magnetic strips, in their environment – started to appear in the 1980s.

One of the most notable trials, in 1995, involved a selfdriving car that completed a nearly 2,000-kilometer run on a German Autobahn, going up to 130 kilometers per hour and even changing lanes without human assistance. The US Defense Department’s two DARPA Grand Challenges in the early 2000s – a prize competition for American autonomous vehicles – were also hugely influential in pushing revolutionary research.

“The basic technologies and methods that enable driverless vehicles have been developed during the last 25 years,” confirms Arto Visala, Professor, Autonomous Systems; Robotics and Automation Technology at Aalto University. “But so far, it’s been far too dangerous to let self-driving cars operate autonomously in public traffic, and too expensive to produce them commercially. Legislation has not covered autonomous driving on public roads.”

Business Insider says that 2020 will kick off the decade of self-driving car advancements, while Forbes predicts that 10 million self-driving cars will hit the road by then.

However, with several key players moving forward with the idea at the same time – from tech companies such as Google and large automotive manufacturers to rental and ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, as well as cities and municipalities around the world – it seems like the dawn of the driverless car era is drawing ever closer. Business Insider says that 2020 will kick off the decade of self-driving car advancements, while Forbes predicts that 10 million self-driving cars will hit the road by then.

In test settings, the technology is already functional. In a world where human drivers and driverless vehicles would co-exist, however, legal constraints and safety concerns remain the major obstacles to robot drivers entering the mainstream.

“The most difficult part for robots is that traffic is a social phenomenon. While they are far better at abiding by rules, they are clumsier at interpreting the human aspects of driving. Robots don’t know where to bend the rules according to unwritten customs and how to read the intentions of human drivers from subtle cues,” explains Iisakki Kosonen, Staff Scientist at Aalto University who specializes in Intelligent Transportation Systems. He has been closely involved in Helsinki’s robot bus experiment.

In ports, driverless vehicles are already in use

While we wait for robot cars to hit the roads, in industrial settings such as factories, mines and ports, semi-automated and fully automated vehicles have already become part of everyday operations.

“In many ways, industrial environments are ideal – or at least easier – for autonomous driving. They are closed and highly structured environments in which routes and driving tasks are standardized, and surfaces are most often flat. It’s a much simpler problem to solve than public traffic, which is more complex and dynamic,” explains Visala.

In other words, when it comes to such environments, they are structured and easier to interpret, and there are fewer of those unpredictable human-related variables to possibly take into consideration. For instance, in container terminals, cargo consists of standardized containers and the routes of self-navigating vehicles can be pre-planned. The entire area can also be mapped out and controlled by a smart terminal operating system. Furthermore, it’s easier for a private port operator to move forward with automation adoption than it is for public officials.

“A private operator can act faster and decide to invest in the smart infrastructure needed for autonomous driving. In the public sphere, it usually takes large infrastructure investments that are up to political budget deliberations as well as new legislation that allows for self-driving vehicles,” adds Kosonen.

While we wait for robot cars to hit the roads, in industrial settings such as factories, mines and ports, semi-automated and fully automated vehicles have already become part of everyday operations.

Thus, in a number of international ports, automated vehicles already perform many of the routine driving tasks with minimal input or intervention from human beings.

“Container handling automation is a megatrend in ports, with a history going back at least ten years,” confirms Svend Videbaek, Product Marketing Specialist at Konecranes.

Konecranes is quite involved in this, offering a range of semi-automated and fully automated vehicles for container handling. These include automated straddle carriers and sprinters, automated terminal trucks and automated guided vehicles (AGVs) for horizontal transport in container yards.

“The Konecranes Gottwald AGV was the first AGV to go into service at a container terminal – the Port of Rotterdam – in the mid-1980s. Now, we provide these machines with lithium-ion battery technology, helping ports become more eco-efficient,” says Videbaek.

Automation brings eco-efficiency and safety to ports

There are various drivers for adopting automation, including self-driving vehicles, at ports. For one, automated container handling equipment is often able to handle container traffic faster and with more precision than equipment driven by humans. Automation is intended to give the terminal operator more control over logistics and contribute to more predictable and reliable operations, since it is easier to plan and track the movement of containers.

A single person can remotely monitor several different self-driven vehicles. Still, savings are realized not only through reduced labor costs, but also through shorter lead times, more consistent and predictable service quality, and increased safety, since automation minimizes the potential for human error.

Autonomous vehicles are built to optimize efficiency in acceleration, braking, and speed, helping to increase fuel efficiency and reduce emissions. Most will be electric, reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Moving toward automated operation is a way for ports to address environmental concerns and promote the use of renewable energy.

As container flows coming off container ships increase and shipping lines demand better performance from container terminals, partial or full automation will likely become a must for many ports. Though Videbaek admits that automation is not a cure-all in container handling, he believes it will be much bigger in the future.

“Eventually, major container terminals around the world will all become fully automated – hardly anyone in the industry disputes this. However, getting there will involve a lot of evolution covering technology, public infrastructure, and regional or even continental cooperation between countries. The drivers for the effort are clear: more ecoefficient, safer and cleaner worldwide transportation of containers, those boxes that today carry about 75% of the world’s goods,” Videbaek says. The automation of container handling is also likely to go beyond ports, as experiments with automated ships and self-driving truck convoys are currently underway.

Will the future be completely driverless?

Ultimately, robots could be much better drivers than humans, according to a paper by the Eno Transportation Center, a US-based think-tank that promotes policy innovation in the transportation sector. They do not break traffic rules. They do not get sleepy, distracted or agitated behind the wheel or have too many drinks before driving. Most of the four D’s that are said to cause accidents – distraction, drowsiness, drunk driving and driver error – could be completely eliminated by using robot drivers. According to Business Insider, self-driving cars could potentially save thousands of the over 1.2 million lives lost to traffic accidents each year.

Moving toward automated operation is a way for ports to address environmental concerns and promote the use of renewable energy.

As self-driving vehicles could operate non-stop, we would need far fewer cars – and almost no parking lots. With a smart traffic control system guiding the self-driving vehicles, traffic could be balanced much more effectively, relieving much of the traffic that now pains congested cities.

“Self-driving vehicles could change the entire logic of car ownership. People might no longer need their own car, but could buy mobility as a service according to need,” Kosonen says.

So, are we headed towards a fully driverless future? Probably not

“My educated guess is that the change will be slow, and there will be a lengthy transition period where self-driving vehicles are restricted to closed areas. The first public ones are likely to be certain city regions or strips of highway that can be certified, fully mapped and controlled by a smart traffic system,” says Kosonen. “The cars may also have a remote-control system, where a human operator can take over if needed.”

As far as less urbanized areas are concerned, self-driving vehicles may still be far off in the future. “It will be a long time before every little country road is sufficiently digitized,” Kosonen points out.

To those fearing the loss of millions of driving-related jobs, experts assure us that the driverless future will still require humans, but they will be needed for different kinds of tasks.

“Their roles will change, but humans can never be fully replaced by machines. No system is perfect, so there will be new problems for people to solve with the help of technology,” concludes Visala.

 

Text: Mari Suonto