Distraction or disruption? Autonomous trucks gain ground in US logistics

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March 24, 2020

(Courtesy: McKinsey.com)

Technology has upended one business after another across the United States. To cite only the most recent developments: Lyft and others have utterly changed personal transportation, and Airbnb has done the same for hospitality. And in January 2018, the first Amazon Go store opened, sans checkout clerks, promising similar upheaval for grocers.

What is happening is fairly well understood, if initially underestimated. Digitization and other technological advances are exposing the vulnerabilities in every industry, particularly retail. And now, logistics companies are starting to feel the heat. Our new research has turned up five trends that offer startling indicators of impending change for the trucking, rail, warehousing, and logistics companies that move America’s merchandise.

Start with autonomous trucks (ATs), which will change the cost structure and utilization of trucking—and with that, the cost of consumer goods. Sixty-five percent of the nation’s consumable goods are trucked to market. With full autonomy, operating costs would decline by about 45 percent, saving the US for-hire trucking industry between $85 billion and $125 billion. The big question is how this savings will be distributed. How will shippers and carriers divide the lower costs of logistics? Or will most of the surplus move to consumers, in the form of lower prices?

The sustained acceleration in e-commerce continues to catch shippers by surprise. Today, between 12 and 15 percent of all purchases in the United States are made from the comfort of home. Amazon’s same-day delivery service is only a couple of years old, but already, up to 5 percent of all its deliveries are same day. By 2025, that figure might be as high as 15 percent, cementing customers’ expectations for fast and free delivery.

Automation at every step of the supply chain is expanding logistics firms’ ability to flex with peak demand, take on heavier cargo, and pick and pack individual products—all attributes that will support e-commerce. The industry is shifting toward comprehensive automation through projects such as XPO Logistics’s “warehouse of the future,” with collaborative robots, an advanced sorting system, and indoor drones. We expect that, as automation proceeds, logistics costs might fall by up to 40 percent.

Asset sharing is familiar to everyone who has stayed in an Airbnb home. We now see the same behavior in B2B environments, unlocking unused capacity in capital-intensive assets, such as trucks and warehouses—and even trains and ships. Already, last-mile crowdsourcing models, such as Amazon Flex, Australia’s Shipster, and other supply-and-demand-matching platforms, are making their presence felt, particularly in the less-than-truckload industry.

Finally, leading shippers and carriers are using data and analytics to forecast demand and optimize their routes in ways we couldn’t imagine even a few years ago. Some shippers have trimmed inventories by up to 75 percent, cut warehousing costs by 15 to 30 percent, and reduced administrative costs by 80 percent. Even some already-efficient third-party logistics (3PL) firms are finding that, in some cases, new routing powered by connectivity and analytics can produce efficiencies of up to 25 percent. Developments in mobile internet, the Internet of Things, and other technologies are not only increasing the data available but also helping reduce risk.

Fast forward

Any one of these five trends might—might—seem like a distraction. But taken together, these shifts clearly imply disruption across the logistics business system—trucking, rail, port, and warehousing. To stay ahead, executives should ask strategic questions, such as, how might disruptive trends affect their companies? When will these trends begin to impact customers, suppliers, and revenue streams? Do the trends present threats, opportunities, or both? And how can companies prepare?

While there are no easy answers to these questions, it is possible to identify the range of potential outcomes and define clearly where to take action. In our experience, a good first step is to brainstorm the potential sources of disruption, both technological advances and market changes, looking out ten years or so. For the logistics industry, new technologies include everything from mobile internet to hyperloop, while market changes include shifts in global trade flows and regulation.


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