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Opinion: Is driverless technology the answer to revolutionising the supply chain?

Opinion: Is driverless technology the answer to revolutionising the supply chain?

Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to revolutionise the logistics industry, while delivering supply chain efficiencies when retailers need it most - but is it developing quickly enough to tackle supply chain challenges and keep pace with innovation in omnichannel retail?

The driverless technology industry is expected to be worth £900bn globally by 2025 - and while consumer vehicles continue to be the primary focus of attention, the technology will have a disruptive effect on the global logistics industry.

Research from AXA estimates self-driving trucks will save the UK haulage industry £33.6bn over the next 10 years - a significant saving and particularly appealing to retailers in what is an increasingly challenging operating environment.

Its appeal is clear from a financial perspective and the associated benefits are countless, from achieving cost-savings, reducing pollution and traffic congestion, through to limiting supply chain inefficiencies and tackling the ongoing driver shortage.

With this in mind, the news last month of the government’s £22m investment in driverless technology projects was welcomed by the industry. Technology is driving the logistics industry forward, but we should be questioning whether innovation in autonomous commercial vehicles has gained enough momentum. Private sector companies - the likes of Uber, Amazon and Tesla - continue to plough millions into the development of driverless cars, but is logistics receiving the same level of focus?

Those leading the charge in logistics include Daimler, Volvo and Google, while the first Mercedes semi-automatic truck prototype is expected to be released in 2025 - still seven years from now. It’s also worth noting that the technology isn’t limited to road vehicles, with Rolls-Royce working on adapting the same principles for large ocean carriers.

But is the logistics industry moving fast enough in bringing forward the technology? And are we doing enough to tackle practical and regulatory challenges beyond ensuring the safe operation of the vehicle?

The reality is, the industry must find solutions to many more obstacles before we see either autonomous lorries or HGV platoons on the road. Yes, we can get a vehicle from A to B, but what happens when it arrives? Each destination site is unique and the supply chain is increasingly complicated for a whole host of reasons. Plus, if we’re not careful and become distracted by an over-focus on this issue, the productivity gains made by the technology of driverless vehicles could be quickly reversed by the logistics challenges the technology would bring along with it.

Driverless lorries are expected to be trialed in the UK later this year, but we mustn’t be distracted from giving due consideration to the ways in which technology can create a leaner, more efficient supply chain. Much like drone deliveries, driverless vehicles have captured the imagination and stimulated much-needed discussion around innovation in logistics, but it’s important that we don’t neglect to maximise opportunities that are workable in the here and now.

It’s crucial that we think seriously about future innovations and begin to build a picture of how the supply chain of the future might look, but we must also channel our efforts - and investment - into better utilising the capabilities that exist at our fingertips.

Written by Mike Danby, CEO of Advanced Supply Chain Group

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