Above the Fold: Supply Chain Logistics News (February 18, 2022)

The first video game I ever played wasn’t a video game at all; it was a chicken in a glass case that played tic-tac-toe. 

I was about 8 the first time I lost to the chicken. My grandparents brought me, my sister, and my cousins to Chinatown in NYC to have lunch at a small restaurant they liked. After we ate, we went to see the chicken next door.

We were each given a few quarters to play tic-tac-toe against the chicken. X. O. It didn’t matter. This chicken was a pro.

For more than forty years, this chicken has been living in a glass case, in some dark, dusty corner of my brain. At a red light last night, for some unexplained reason, it pecked its way out and flew out the car window. She perched herself on the traffic light ahead of me, head tilted to the side. “Wanna play again?” she seemed to ask. Then she pecked the bottom circle, turning it green. I sat there: one second, two seconds, three 

deciding my next move, until the car behind me beeped, and I let go the brake.

I slow rolled beneath the traffic light and chicken, then stepped on the gas,

defeated again.

Moving on, here’s the supply chain and logistics news that caught my attention this week:

C.H. Robinson and Waymo: Exploring the Practical Application of Autonomous Driving Technology

When (if ever) will driverless trucks make a measurable impact on freight transportation?

“The wizards of Silicon Valley said people would be commuting to work in self-driving cars by now,” wrote Cade Metz in a May 2021 New York Times article. “Instead, there have been court fights, injuries and deaths, and tens of billions of dollars spent on a frustratingly fickle technology that some researchers say is still years from becoming the industry’s next big thing.”

Although driverless trucks, specifically Class 8 trucks for freight transportation on highways, face fewer technical challenges than driverless cars on busy city streets, they still have to overcome a variety of challenges and obstacles — not only technical, but legal and regulatory too — before they can be deployed at a meaningful scale.

That said, the work continues to make driverless trucks a reality. This week, for example, C.H. Robinson and Waymo Via, the trucking and local delivery unit of autonomous driving technology company Waymo, announced that they “have formed a long-term strategic partnership to mutually explore the practical application of autonomous driving technology in logistics and supply chains.” Here are some details from the press release:

The collaboration will focus, initially, on running multiple pilots in the Dallas-Houston transportation lane, with Waymo Via autonomous trucks hauling C.H. Robinson’s customer freight. During and after the pilots, the companies will collaborate to shape the future development and expansion of autonomous driving technology as an additional transportation solution. This will provide much-needed capacity, help improve the carrier and driver experience and address the business challenges posed by long-term driver shortages.

I’m not sure how an autonomous truck will help improve driver experience, unless the vision is to still have a driver in the cab doing other work (or watching Netflix) while the vehicle drives itself.

Anyway, when it comes to driverless trucks, we’re still in the “pilot test” stage, and this partnership between C.H. Robinson and Waymo adds to the growing list of partnerships and tests already in progress. Last June, for example, J.B. Hunt and Waymo announced that they are collaborating to move freight autonomously in Texas for one of J.B. Hunt’s leading customers. Yeah, happening in Texas too, the Lone Star Driverless Truck State.

What’s perhaps different in this case, however, is the amount of real-world operational data and analytics C.H. Robinson will bring to the table. As the press release states, the two companies aren’t exploring the application of autonomous driving technology in logistics and supply chains, but the practical application of this technology.

Practical (adjective): likely to succeed or be effective in real circumstances; feasible.

The adjective matters here because in order to discover what’s practical or not, a lot of data and analysis is required. And it will take some time too, which is why they’re calling this a long-term partnership.

Does this change the race between driverless trucks and drones in terms of which technology (new mode of transportation) will deliver the most business benefits first? I’m not sure, but progress is being made on both fronts, and in this race, having two winners is better than none. 

And with that, have a happy weekend!

Song of the Week: “King of Sweden” by Future Islands