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More than just cars on the road: Making AVs work for us anywhere and everywhere

March 03, 2021

By Katie Clothier

There are few industries that will not benefit from the safe, thoughtful deployment of autonomous vehicles

Stantec GenerationAV™ External Consultant Grayson Brulte contributed to this blog.

When you hear autonomous vehicle (AV), what’s the first image that comes to mind? Most likely you see a self-driving car, yet autonomy goes well beyond that. Let’s focus on the autonomous part of the term. Yes, car manufacturers have steadily added features like hands-free parking, but automation stands ready to transform a much broader range of fields.

From neighborhood restaurants in Singapore to truck stops in New Mexico to mines in Brazil, look at some fields where automation could introduce extraordinary changes. Fields, in other words, where autonomous means more than just cars.

Advancing the middle mile with trucking

The e-commerce boom and demands for faster delivery have pushed the trucking industry toward AVs. For all the talk of the first mile and the last mile of deliveries, people rarely discuss the miles in between. Yet those middle miles hold enormous potential for automation. For one thing, long-haul trucks, central to getting goods into customer’s hands, travel on interstates and limited-access highways, where highly predictable routes and lack of cross traffic play to the technology’s strengths. For another, taking human drivers out of the trucking equation can cut costs by 40%—never mind the fact that a shortage of qualified drivers has long bedeviled trucking. With those two forces in play, trucking could become the first area to deploy AV technology widely.

The “middle miles” of long-haul freight present enormous opportunity for increased automation.

With the trucking industry already beginning to embrace autonomous trucks, we’re anticipating demand for a new generation of strategically sited logistics centers for unloading goods for last-mile distribution and refueling (or, increasingly, recharging) to get long-haul trucks back on the highway. We’re working with partners to provide a suite of turnkey services for these centers: identifying the best sites, handling all aspects of permitting them, and—because we understand the special requirements of AVs—planning and designing the centers.

Enhancing airport operations

Airports are integrated transportation systems that interface almost every mode of transportation while bringing people together from around the globe. The opportunities for AV technology at aviation facilities are almost endless at both commercial service and military facilities. 

As the challenges of air travel have been further complicated by COVID-19, innovation and technology provide abundant possibilities to enhance passenger safety, security, and travel comfort. AV technology provides a level of efficiency, reliability, safety, and consistency that is simply not achievable via human resources. Seasonal challenges like the heat of summer or the cold of winter have less impact on AVs.

Working with clients has taught us not to think of autonomy as a particular technology but to treat it as a powerful tool for rethinking and rebuilding entire fields.

Is it practical to have people vacuum and wash acres of terminal flooring every day when this can be completed easily in the dark of night by AVs? And what is the personal toll of handling baggage and cargo on active aircraft aprons day in and day out, winter and summer? Baggage handling and transfer is an ideal application for AV technology, and it is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to viable opportunities surrounding airports and air travel. 

As technology evolves, and the needs and expectations of the traveling public change, aviation regulatory agencies are exploring myriad ways of enhancing the safety, security, and health of the public. From airside to landside to terminal, possibilities include security, inspecting, cleaning, and clearing snow off runways. AVs can play a key role in foreign-object detection (a critical concern), guiding aircraft tugs and fuel trucks, wayfinding, dispensing passenger info, operating shuttle services, managing parking, and operating self-driving wheelchairs. All this needs to be completed in a fashion that balances technological integration with the personal elements of change.  

Delivering the goods in urban areas

Short-run delivery in congested settings had established a small foothold before the pandemic. Autonomous cars play a role here, but so do sidewalk robots, indoor delivery bots, and even drones—which are coming. New federal regulations, set to take effect in March 2021, relax operating restrictions in ways that will make it easier to use drones for deliveries.

The pandemic turbocharged demand: the shutdowns in spring 2020 had everyone asking for the lower-risk, hands-free deliveries that autonomy can provide, spurring pilot projects in hospitals, hotels, and campuses. That demand will likely stick around in a post-pandemic world. Nuro and Starship, leading AV manufacturers, have moved aggressively to test and market these solutions with restaurants, supermarkets, pharmacies, online retailers, and food services like Postmates. Consultants McKinsey & Co. value the last-mile delivery market at US$86 billion—and project strong growth. 

Campus environments— university, hospital, or business park—are ideal for early AV pilots and deployments.

Creating connections in campus environments

Whether university, hospital, or business park, most campuses offer transportation services to move people more quickly than walking and more efficiently than driving (never mind parking). These dedicated services have traditionally taken the form of passenger shuttles, golf carts, and even micromobility. Locations like the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi have begun deploying autonomous vehicles, which function especially well in these less-congested, low-speed settings. Benefits AVs can bring to these settings include:

  • Sustainability: AV shuttles can help create a mobility network of shared and emission-free transportation on campuses. We helped Arizona State University create a concept plan for an electric, accessible multimodal service during their exploration of AV technology.
  • Rider experience: Thanks to networked systems, AVs can supply real-time data through an app or kiosk to respond to rider requests and help riders plan their journeys.
  • Safety: Those same networked systems introduce multiple layers of safety, with vehicles constantly communicating with the system and humans constantly keeping a watchful eye on overall operations.
  • Accessibility: For people using wheelchairs and other assistive devices, accessibility standards are a main consideration in AV design.

Shifting mining to a safer, more sustainable future

Mining companies have recently taken up the charge of making the industry more sustainable, committing to greenhouse-gas-emission benchmarking and ultimately reaching net zero operations. Historically a dangerous profession, the industry is also focused on better protecting workers and becoming safer, adopting a “vision zero” approach. AV and electrification technology will play an important role in realizing these ambitions. Automation can also level the playing field, allowing smaller companies to compete more effectively against established operators. 

Both autonomous and electric technologies have a significant role to play in the future of mining.

We recently worked with a local university to research the potential of adding EV/AV haulers to an 80-mile stretch of a confidential client’s operations. There is a lot to consider, from technology selection to route planning and operational and capital cost analysis. In establishing a potential path forward, it’s important to build a roadmap around different options to consider how automation might best realize goals in mind.

Mining companies have a long history of adopting new technologies. The path starts with simple applications and building on that experience to inform the uses of advanced ones. In our estimation, the industry has the potential to become a global leader in using autonomy to promote productivity and safety.

Building our AV future together

Working with clients in all these areas has taught us not to think of autonomy as a particular technology but to treat it as a powerful tool for rethinking and rebuilding entire fields. With a problem to solve and the vision for a solution, we can build the roadmaps that lay out the deployment of AV technologies that fundamentally change—and improve—countless facets of our communities.

With the right planning and guidance, communities, companies, and businesses can realize an autonomous future with big gains in efficiency, safety, and sustainability. 

  • Katie Clothier

    As an automated vehicle (AV) product manager with our AV Accelerator team, Katie is responsible for product development, project management, administrative tasks, and research.

    Contact Katie
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