The immediate future of autonomous vehicles won't be about cars, but about fleets of self-driving trucks, which are set to fuel another revolution in transportation.
"The shippers are looking for and investing in that, and transportation operators are looking to take friction and cost out," says Scott Corwin, leader of Deloitte's global future of mobility practice.
Levels of autonomous driving go from zero to five--from adaptive cruise control to complete, driverless autonomy. Today, fleets can hit level two, like Boston-based Embark's trucks, which move freight autonomously on highways between L.A. and Arizona, while being monitored by human safety drivers.
Much faster data speeds will be the ultimate drivers toward level-five automation. Why? Autonomous vehicles generate huge amounts of data. Moving that data in real time is the key to an 18-wheel tractor-trailer's reacting to a deer darting across the road, or a truck, knowing that it's in a jam, handing controls to a human operator on the other side of town--or the country. "5G is near-instantaneous feedback," says Michael Ramsey, senior research director of automotive and smart mobility with Gartner's CIO research group. "You can take control of a vehicle 200 miles away, and then drive it via a live feed."
With faster technology, trucks can form tight platoons, like a flock of geese, the lead vehicle cutting the air for the rest and increasing efficiency. "Fuel savings is a big deal for the freight industry," says Jiaqi Ma, academic director of the Advanced Transportation Collaborative at the University of Cincinnati. "Platooning potentially can absorb the stop-and-go disturbances" that affect fuel consumption, he adds, "with better vehicle behavior, and handling traffic better."
Instant data transfers also allow autonomous fleets to move goods, safely, at any hour--there's no need for drivers to rest. But big rigs can take your goods only so far. Today, the last mile is covered mostly by vans and drivers. 5G will allow robots and drones to cover that final distance, deployed from a centralized vehicle, says Ma.
Companies like San Francisco-based Starship Technologies and Berkeley, California-based Kiwi Campus have already unleashed armies of small, rolling drones--basically coolers on wheels--to deliver Seamless orders. But don't expect to see American sidewalks and skies invaded by hordes of delivery bots anytime soon.
The on-ramp to 5G might get crowded quickly. Gartner estimates that connected cars and autonomous vehicles--and the technologies that aid them--will consume up to 53 percent of 5G traffic by 2023, and those are still early days.
The first iteration of this faster technology will be paid for and used primarily by shippers and delivery services, from UPS to FreshDirect. But drivers of conventional vehicles will benefit too. As the autonomous trucks become more proficient, all travel will become safer, faster, and less frustrating.