Ready for your Tesla to deliver itself? If you believe Elon Musk’s promise of fully-autonomous cars, that vision could be just around the corner. While a Tesla that rolls right off the production line and out to a buyer’s house sounds like the future, in practice it’s more likely to involve a couple more steps.
The CEO promised back in October 2016 that cars built from that point on would offer coast-to-coast autonomous drives as early as the end of 2017. That deadline came and went, but Musk announced in August a new A.I. chip to power the feature, plus the prospect of autonomous drives in an alpha version of the next software update. While this is going on, Musk has said that Tesla now finds itself in a “delivery logistics hell.” Randy Ofiara, vice president of enterprise sales for BlueGrace Logistics, doesn’t think it’s that unreasonable to say that a car could deliver itself in theory very soon.
“I think from a capability standpoint, the technology, I think we’re almost there as an industry,” Ofiara tells Inverse. “I think the real constraint there is going to be more on the regulatory side.”
First, a quick primer. Cars are currently delivered through a sort of hub-and-spoke model. The cars are loaded from a factory to a delivery point like a train, which delivers them thousands of miles to stations where they’re loaded onto car carriers before making their way to consumers. These stations can serve areas of a radius somewhere around 100 to 250 miles. This is the model used by around 70 percent of vehicles sold in the United States.
In Ofiara’s vision, autonomous cars will first cut out the journey from hub to hub, perhaps by following a segregated lane on an interstate highway. That makes the cars easier to monitor from a regulatory standpoint. A human driver would take over at either end of that trip, so the car doesn’t need to worry about tricky or unpredictable maneuvers that come with inner city driving.
“If you had to make a pickup in Chicago, let’s just say, you have a driver get in a truck, he goes and makes the pickup,” Ofiara says. “He takes it then to some terminal. That’s where the autonomous vehicle takes over, and it drives it all the way to some terminal in L.A. And then from there driver comes in, makes the pickup and go.”
This seems like a small change, but it could solve a major problem in the delivery industry: there aren’t enough drivers. Ofiara explains that the commercial trucking industry competes with manufacturing and construction for labor. Potential drivers are faced with the prospect of a long time away from home, unsociable hours, poor working conditions and little benefit. Compare it with the life of, say, a builder, and it’s easy to see why the trucking industry has a hard time attracting new recruits.
“In our industry, part of the driver constraint is exactly that is that it’s not a very glamorous life, because they are over the road,” Ofiara says. “They sleep in their trucks for days at a time, they’re away from their home. So now, if you have that long length of haul piece being taken over by autonomous vehicles, that should really open up capacity, because now you have driver availability because most drivers are going to be driving trucks within 200 miles of their home. They’re not going to be 1,500 miles away from home every night. So I think eventually, I’m hoping what we’re going through as an industry right now is making people realize that that could be a solution for us.”
Universal basic income advocates like Andrew Yang have praised autonomous vehicles for their potential to free people from a tough, mundane job. A self-driving Tesla could mean cross-country trips while sleeping at the wheel, but it could also help change an industry.