Forms of Transport Automation

Forms of Transport Automation

Source: Vehicle automation adapted from Eno Center for Transportation.

Transport automation considers the range of technologies and control systems that can be implemented for transportation modes such as automobiles and trucks, but also at terminals such as ports, airports and distribution centers. While automobile automation has received a lot of attention, the automation of other modes (particularly trucks) and terminals can be far reaching in consequences as well.

The level of automation for vehicles has been subject to a categorization ranging from level 0 (no automation) to level 5 (full automation). This classification can also be applied to terminals and distribution centers.

  • Level 0 (no automation). Vehicles and equipment are manually operated, which represents standard mechanical operations. Even if a vehicle or equipment can be set on automatic (e.g. fixed speed cruise control), it cannot adapt without assistance to changing conditions.
  • Level 1 (basic). A form of adaptive driving assistance is provided for vehicles, mainly the ability to change speed under adaptive cruise control (e.g. if the speed of other vehicles changes). Still, the operator needs to be in control at all times. A similar analogy can be applied for terminals and distribution centers. For instance, a crane could automatically do a movement from the point of pickup and drop off, but the operator would be responsible for the pickup or drop off equipment operations.
  • Level 2 (partial). Under this level of automation, the vehicle can undertake partial control such as steering, acceleration and deceleration under well-defined circumstances (e.g. a highway). This represents the current automation level available for commercial automobiles with the operator ready to take control of the vehicle at all time. For terminals, this level of automation mainly relates to yard and warehousing management systems that automatically assigns cargo (or items) to a storage slot and the equipment to handle it.
  • Level 3 (conditional). This level of automation is getting close to truly autonomous vehicles since most of the driving is automated and the operator ready to take control under request and more complex circumstances. The vehicle is actively monitoring the environment with various sensors. This form of automation is subject to risks since the operator has the illusion that the vehicle is autonomous while it is so only under specific circumstances. For terminals and distribution centers, conditional automation is often the norm since the equipment (such as cranes and horizontal movements) operates under well-defined circumstances that are less likely to be disrupted by unforeseen events, but operators must be ready to handle exceptions. This form of automation also involves automated gates and access to facilities where vehicles and users can enter and exit if they meet defined criteria (e.g. electronic bill of lading).
  • Level 4 (high). Represents true self driving vehicles able to perform all the required navigation without intervention. This would require a constant and active monitoring of the environment and the capability to adapt to changes. Still, there is an option to manually operate the vehicle. Fully automated terminals and distribution centers can integrate different storage, retrieval systems so that the interactions between different automated component becomes functional. Such systems should also be able to automatically load and unload vehicles.
  • Level 5 (full). A completely autonomous vehicle able to operate in all possible environments without intervention, with the vehicle remotely controllable. Users simply need to provide origin and destination information. On the terminal side, this would represent a completely autonomous terminal able to dynamically respond to demand from users to access cargo that will be loaded or unload from conveyances such as ships, trains or trucks. These conveyances could be automated as well.