IDTechEx has found significant activity in the autonomous heavy-duty commercial vehicle space, with hundreds of vehicles in various stages of trialling globally, and some companies on the precipice of fully unmanned commercial deployment. Each industry has unique strengths and challenges, this report explains them and gives market forecasts accordingly.
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Roboshuttles are a new and exciting form of transport which has seen the most player activity. Leaders in the field, EasyMile and Navya, have been in the game since 2014 and have accumulated around two thirds of all roboshuttle sales between them. But their sales in recent years have been dwindling. Despite this there have been recent pushes from China, with Yutong looking to put a large fleet on the road for large trials in 2022. IDTechEx has observed many small trial deployments of roboshuttles with less than five vehicles being tested by the public on very restricted routes. There have been some bigger deployments, such as Apolong in 2019, but it seems that the industry is getting stuck at turning these large pilots into commercial trials. This report looks at some of the biggest stumbling blocks for roboshuttles and considers when these may be overcome and how quickly the market can grow afterwards. One thing is certainly clear, with many trial activities in tens of cities around the world, when commercial deployments do happen, growth will be rapid.
While autonomous buses have seen less activity than roboshuttles, bus automation is not promising to revolutionize public transport. Here IDTechEx thinks that automation is going to provide iterative improvements to existing vehicles over the coming years. The advantage that buses have over roboshuttles is that the driver and conventional controls can remain in the vehicle during trials. Since both will be forced to operate near pedestrians, human supervision will likely be required for many years. Many bus companies see the driver transitioning to a supervisory role as the technology improves, with long term ambitions of uncrewed autonomous buses. Despite this, level 4 autonomy can bring benefits to buses today. The autonomy level will improve bus safety, and deployments in special use cases, such as in bus depots, airside airport buses and minibuses operating on controlled access campuses, could be accomplished in the next few years.
The big challenge for autonomous buses is simply the size of the industry today. Of the three heavy-duty sectors covered in this report, autonomous buses have the fewest vehicles on the road, with a total fleet size in the low tens, compared to the mid hundreds for both roboshuttles and autonomous trucks. It is likely that this is due to the expense of working on automating buses and this is reflected with approximately two thirds of the autonomous bus activity coming from established OEMs rather than autonomous start-ups which are more dominant in roboshuttles and autonomous trucks.
Out of roboshuttles, autonomous buses and autonomous trucks, IDTechEx believes that trucks make the most compelling case for automation. There is a measurable need for truckers in China, the US and Europe. This once popular profession is failing to attract younger generations due to the long hours on the road and separation from family. The average age of truck drivers is increasing, and the industry is heading for a crisis as demand for haulage soars. This is the key driver for autonomous trucks, but it doesn’t matter if the task is unachievable. Thankfully, autonomous trucks also have an achievable operational design domain, and therefore a promising route to deployment. In China and the US, many of the miles served by trucks are between distribution centres separated by vast stretches of open highway. These roads are not used by pedestrians, they have central reservations and flow in only one direction either side and are generally well maintained. This drastically reduces the challenges that autonomous systems in roboshuttles and autonomous buses encounter when operating in densely populated cities, with less predictable traffic and unpredictable pedestrians. Operating at night, when roads are quieter, also does not impact the value of the mission, unlike roboshuttles and autonomous buses whose operation is most valuable around peak travel times.