by Andrew Culhane, Chief Strategy Officer, Torc Robotics

When global supply networks are choked, the impact is astonishing. Last year the waters around major ports were packed with vessels that could not unload their cargo because of massive supply-chain problems.

At the height of the issue, some ships were spending eight days circling the ports, using valuable fuel and polluting the air while waiting to get to shore. Some remained anchored because there was simply nowhere for them to go. As a result, the average time a package took to get from Asia to the U.S. increased by 43%, going from 50 days before the crisis to 71.5 days.

While some of the gridlock at the ports has been cleared, many businesses are bracing for ongoing supply chain disruption through 2022. Some have pointed to the shortage of trucks and drivers available to unload and transport goods. Still, that’s just one piece of the puzzle. Shortages in other workers and supplies, plus other operational inefficiencies have culminated in a perfect storm. The freight network is a vast, interconnected system where a blockade in one area produces ripple effects across the country and the world.

This global bottleneck trickles down to everyone: Furniture stores, retail outlets, shoe companies — they’re all alarmingly short on certain goods and supplies. Agricultural exports have been hindered, as U.S. farmers deal with increased costs and reduced availability of empty cargo containers. Factories are shutting down shifts because they don’t have parts — all these examples underscore the importance of the trucking industry to deliver vital goods. Trucking is truly the backbone of the U.S. economy, and we’re now seeing the effects of supply chain issues that are hampering the ability to reliably move goods across the country.

While the past year’s backlog at the ports brought supply chain issues to a head, the writing has been on the wall for several years that our freight transportation networks would face these challenges. Fortunately, a new tool for sustained innovation has also been in development: autonomous trucks.

I strongly believe that autonomous trucks will support economic growth throughout the nation by moving goods more efficiently and diminishing the impact of the U.S. truck driver shortage. However, it is critically important that autonomous vehicle (AV) companies approach a deep understanding and collaboration with the freight industry.

Introducing autonomous trucks should not mean breaking the current freight system. In my 15 years of working in driverless technology, I have learned that the approach to introducing new technology is just as important as the code or hardware development. Brand-new solutions must be developed with customers, not for them.

Trucking is an essential service for a robust economy. AV providers can’t assume that technology alone will fix a complex problem. We’ve seen the effects of supply chain disruption. Can you imagine the consequences of a “disruptive” approach to commercializing autonomous technology?

Torc sees commercializing autonomy as a complementary technology to the existing shipping business – we are supporting innovation.

While commercialization at scale is a few years away, autonomous trucks will be a part of the future solution to supply chain woes. Deployed correctly, it will fill worker gaps in most critical applications and as the modality evolves, will bring new job opportunities within transportation and supporting industries. On a larger scale, grocery stores will be stocked, fuel and medicine will be delivered, and factories will get their parts and supplies to continue operating. This will create a healthy, dependable supply chain that will only improve the job market overall.

This is the vision that we have at Torc, and why we are engaging with multiple members of the freight industry – not only those who could be first adopters but other companies and supporting teams who make up the vast ecosystem of goods transportation.

For this to work, AV companies cannot operate in a bubble. I believe we all need to build trust with the freight industry and the general public by understanding our responsibility to develop collaboratively. We need to continually ask ‘what is the right way to evolve autonomous technology into the current network and ecosystem?’

As I look at not just our current cargo dilemma, but 5 to 10 years in the future, I believe autonomous semi-trucks have the potential to revolutionize the way we ship goods. But the integrated solution must be developed together.