Look Out for Unmanned Trucks: They’re Headed Your Way Sooner Than You Might Think

By Michael Collins

If you had been driving the Florida Turnpike near Orlando on June 16, you might have noticed a Volvo tractor-trailer with Starsky logos emblazoned on all sides of it (San Francisco-based Starsky Robotics). What you wouldn’t have spotted is a driver. That’s because he was 150 miles away in Jacksonville.

Door and window manufacturers frequently report difficulties in securing qualified drivers. Meanwhile, when they do, there are other related challenges. For instance, you might have a great product that customers are willing to pay to have shipped over long distances, only to run afoul of Department of Transportation (DOT) limits on daily drive distances. Like any economically meaningful challenge, however, these dilemmas draw a crowd of well-capitalized tinkerers. One of the latest solutions—semi-autonomous vehicles—will have radical impacts on door and window companies.

Merging In

In one sense, the journey of Starsky’s tractor-trailer didn’t amount to much: It left a rest area, merged onto the turnpike, traveled just 9.4 miles at 55 miles-per-hour, changed lanes once and exited through a tollbooth to a final destination. But for the owner, it marked the first time one of its unmanned semi-autonomous vehicles had been tested on a public road in regular traffic.

Starsky plans to have 25 driverless trucks by 2020. To operate them, it’s recruiting experienced drivers who will control the vehicles remotely from a base station in which huge screens provide the kind of wraparound view that they would have if they were in a rig’s cabin. Like airplane pilots, they’ll manage the complicated stuff and let auto-pilot handle the rest.

Starsky’s semi-autonomous model improves on the status quo of manned vehicles in several ways. First, it makes longhaul trucking more attractive. In an interview with FreightWaves news service, Stefan Seltz-Axmacher, one of Starsky’s founders, suggested that there’s no shortage of long-haul drivers who would rather operate trucks remotely and then go home to their families after a shift. That alone could ease driver shortages, which at times have pushed up freight costs while slowing delivery times.

Another current problem stems from the federal government’s limitations for the number of hours drivers can be on the road—for which enforcement has become heightened. With remote operation from a central location, companies can swap out drivers when a driver hits his or her hours-of-service
limit. By swapping remote drivers, trucks could be on the road 24 hours per day, moving freight faster.

Augmenting Responsibilities

In some cases, a company might prefer that a person remain on board to help with loading and unloading materials. That’s fine; with remote-controlled trucks, the driver in the cab can sleep or rest while someone else guides the vehicle to its destination. The person inside the truck can wake up and take over operation of the vehicle at the loading dock.

The Florida Turnpike jaunt represents one of the “startling indicators of impending change for the trucking, rail, warehousing and logistics companies that move America’s merchandise,” consultancy firm McKinsey reported in December 2018. The company estimates full autonomy (beyond just remote drivers) could save the U.S. for-hire trucking industry between $85 and $125 billion. It’s unlikely that door and window manufacturers using long-haul trucking firms will see those benefits right away, but as the technology spreads, odds are freight costs will, too.

Michael Collins is an investment banker and a partner in Building Industry Advisors. He specializes in mergers and acquisitions in the door and window industry. mcollins@buildingia.com

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DWM Magazine

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