April 29, 2024
Human-assisted autonomy is the only path to scalable and reliable logistics automation today. Here is why.

I am not here to steer controversy, but let me get straight to the point: human-assisted autonomy is the only path to scalable and reliable logistics automation today. Especially, in the AV space we are used to the moonshot approach: it’s all in or nothing; either full autonomy or none at all. And it is, definitely, robots vs. humans. This is a great way to think about it when writing sci-fi, but in reality, it is not about the opposites; it’s about combining the two, to harvest the benefits and start the transformation today. 

Logistics is in Need of Transformation and More Automation

When we were founding FERNRIDE, it was really important for us to create a company that would change the world for the better. This motivation led us to the logistics industry which has been facing significant challenges. Thin profit margins, a lack of truck drivers, and the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions are the most apparent problems. Europe's truck driver shortage is predicted to escalate from 400,000 to 2,000,000 by 2026. The combination of increasing labor costs and a declining workforce is set to squeeze profits further. Meanwhile, the growing urgency of the climate crisis is leading to tighter emissions regulations and the possibility of fines. The push for industry transformation and increased automation is therefore not just desired but necessary, and the solutions need to be effective, cost-efficient, and integrate smoothly with existing operations.

FERNRIDE is dedicated to providing scalable automation solutions, specifically for yard trucking. We concentrate on solving problems that can be addressed immediately within enclosed areas such as logistics centers, production facilities, and intermodal and container terminals, with an initial focus on the latter. We believe in the power of human-machine collaboration for economic viability, rather than only relying on autonomous technology. We term this approach "human-assisted autonomy".

Human-Assisted Autonomy: The Solution That Works Today

The concept of autonomous driving is not new in the logistics industry. There are commercially successful use cases of automated guided vehicles (AGVs), mainly in ports, and with clear separation from humans and other traffic, as well as autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) in specific settings, such as inside warehouses. However, the implementation of autonomous technology in more complex environments and mixed traffic is far from being fully operational. The reasons: The infinite number of edge cases, sensing and compute performance requirements, the absence or cost of a general supply chain for all hardware components, and regulatory requirements.  

In the logistics industry, uptime, reliability, scalability, and cost are crucial. With many unknown situations across different container terminals, full autonomy today cannot guarantee sufficient availability and performance of the solution across different ports. Hypothetically, it is possible to over-optimize your autonomous stack for single locations at a time, but this approach is not scalable, and the cost involved would not make it feasible for customers. Thus, the commercialization of such a “full autonomy solution” is impossible.

Additionally, the step-by-step approach is required, as the change to automation is not going to happen overnight. The new autonomous vehicles will have to operate in mixed-traffic environments and encounter new complex situations for years to come.

With the human-assisted autonomy approach, we are combining the strengths of humans and machines to not only solve these challenges, but also tap into the potential to improve efficiency, safety, and overall performance in complex and dynamic environments. 

So, how does it work? Humans and machines work together in a symbiotic relationship where humans provide oversight, guidance, and intervention when necessary, while autonomous systems handle 80-90% of tasks. 

In the case of FERNRIDE, a human operator supports several automated terminal tractors from a remote control station. This approach ensures rapid scalability, increased productivity, and worker safety on the customers' sites. In the future, we aim to further boost the efficiency of operations  and make the newly created jobs even more comfortable by increasing the autonomous capabilities. Scaling across different container terminals is going to become straightforward, as we have seen in our customer engagements that 80% of the tasks that an autonomous vehicle needs to handle in terminals across the world are the same. The edge cases are handled by the human remote operator.

Human-Machine Collaboration Creates the Jobs of the Future

Let’s face it: Human-assisted autonomy is more socially acceptable and easier to integrate into the customers' reality compared to full autonomy. As I mentioned earlier, the path to automation doesn’t create the humans vs. machines situation. On the contrary, the goal is to leverage the strengths of both to achieve better outcomes than either could achieve alone.

In this scenario, we are able to not only close the gap of labor shortage but also train and upskill the existing workforce. Based on the feedback we got from workers across many geographies across the globe, moving employees to a safe, more comfortable working environment is way more attractive. Times of sweating in the cabin during the summer, or freezing during winters are a thing of the past. 

Creating those high-value jobs is part of the ongoing transformation of the workplace of the future - arriving now also for “mobile” equipment such as trucks as this concept has already been the state of the art for crane operators for years. This is, by the way, another reason why we love working with this industry - once an innovative technology works reliably, customer adoption happens swiftly.  


Hendrik Kramer, CEO and cofounder of FERNRIDE

Hendrik Kramer is the Co-Founder and CEO of FERNRIDE, that offers a scalable solution for autonomous, electric trucking. He co-founded FERNRIDE in 2019 with Dr. Maximilian Fisser and Jean-Michael Georg in Munich. Before launching FERNRIDE, he specialized in Entrepreneurship and Autonomous Driving in his Master's program at TU Munich and Stanford University. He started his first company already at the age of 16 and scaled it to a successful international business.
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