Over the past several years, driverless cars have been making countless headlines and are much at the heart of our imagined future.

Meanwhile, another revolution is gaining traction: industrial mobility, or the automation, and eventual autonomy, of transportation vehicles. It covers a wide range of transportation modes – from mobile and autonomous robots on factory floors to autonomous trucking, drones, and rail and marine transport.

With some 16 billion tons of goods and commodities shipped annually in the U.S., even small advancements in semi- and fully autonomous freight transport could hold important implications for a number of stakeholders – from large industrials to mobility tech startups and state and municipal governments. Indeed, some automated and autonomous mobility technologies are already being developed and piloted – and, in some cases, are already commercially available.

Are U.S. manufacturers ready for industrial mobility? To take a closer look at how industrial mobility could play out in the future, PwC and the Manufacturing Institute (MI) conducted a survey of 128 large and mid-sized U.S. manufacturers and transportation companies. Our survey found that manufacturers seem very much at the early stages of the adoption curve, with most manufacturers locked in a “wait-and-see,” neutral-gear mode. However, they’re bullish on the future. Take self-driving trucks. Sixty-five percent of U.S. manufacturers believe that self-driving trucks will be mainstreamed within the next 10 years.

Other findings of the survey include:

Just 9% of manufacturers have adopted some type of semi-autonomous or autonomous mobility within their operations, with another 11% expecting to do so in the next three years.

The top trigger for manufacturers to adopt industrial mobility technologies (from mobile robots to autonomous trucks) is cost advantage (86%), followed by customer/supply expectations (47%) and increased safety (38%).

Nearly 60% of manufacturers cite cost as one of the top barriers of adoption of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles within their plants, followed by immature technology (42%), safety issues (32%) and lack of talent (32%).

Roughly 90% of U.S. manufacturers believe that fully autonomous trucks could, when mainstreamed, save up to 25% of their total trucking costs.

Nearly 60% of manufacturers cite cost as one of the top
barriers of adoption of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles within their plants, followed by immature technology (42%), safety issues (32%) and lack of talent (32%).

Following the money into autonomous transport, PwC also analyzed U.S. investments in startups in non-auto mobility technology – or “broad-use mobility,” including automated/autonomous trucking, unmanned aerial vehicles, and mobile industrial robots. The analysis found that investment in broad-use mobility had actually outpaced that of auto tech in the last five years: auto tech companies received $2.6 billion in funding compared to $4.2 billion invested in broad-use mobility. Interestingly, the lion’s share of investment in broad-use mobility tech ($3.5 billion) occurred in just the last two years.

A separate PwC analysis looked at potential cost savings for manufacturers deploying autonomous trucks. Assuming aggressive adoption of self-driving trucks, manufacturers could trim trucking costs by an estimated 30% by 2040, according to the analysis.

Still, a long road to autonomy. As elements of automation begin to roll out in all transportation modes, it’s likely we’ll see incremental adoption on the road to full autonomy. For instance, certain modes of autonomous transport, especially those that are used on privately owned territory – such as mine pits, or inspection of assets in remote areas – will likely advance more quickly than others (e.g., delivery drones in urban areas) along the adoption curve. As autonomous vehicles (both passenger and freight) are piloted, advances in reliability and safety will surely also dictate the pace, breadth and locales of adoption.

Then there are the issues surrounding policy and regulation. Pending legislation, if passed into law (particularly the SELF DRIVE Act), could usher in the first federal law regulating automated vehicles.

But in a world of autonomous transport, what happens to drivers and operators? No matter how the future unfolds, manufacturers will need to prepare for a potentially momentous talent shift and, in some cases, displacement. This means upskilling existing workers and luring new talent for altogether new jobs, such as logistics technicians to manage and maintain fleets of autonomous vehicles.

While the future of autonomous transport may be on the horizon, getting there may well mean taking a long, circuitous – and perhaps even bumpy – road.

For more information on autonomous vehicles, visit https://pghtechfuse.com/teq/new-crazy-future-autonomous-vehicles/