When Will We See Autonomous Trucks on Construction Sites?

Autonomous cars are hot topics these days, especially as more test drives occur and industry authorities start looking at legislation to keep roads safe without stifling self-driving vehicle innovation. However, it’s also useful to think about the potential of high-tech automobiles to excel in certain types of work — on construction sites, in particular. What benefits could autonomous construction equipment bring? 

Artificial Intelligence in Construction Gaining Popularity

One thing all autonomous vehicles have in common is that they use artificial intelligence (AI) to navigate environments safely. Most have advanced sensors and software to give input that allows steering around obstacles, recognizing changing road conditions, and more.

Developers build AI tools to predict what people might do in particular situations. Self-driving car algorithms analyze the specifics of millions of hours of human driving, then use that information to respond to real-time environmental fluctuations.

The construction industry is already implementing other types of AI to get jobs done safely and on schedule. For example, some sites feature robots that help lay bricks, plus computer-vision cameras that can spot safety hazards and flaws that may make a building fail an inspection.

Other sectors have also proven that AI can work in specialty vehicles. In one case, Ukraine developed armored vehicles for military missions. They could transfer supplies between locations or test unknown roads before other vehicles travel on them.

Autonomous construction equipment could also become more attractive due to a labor shortage in the sector. Even the most successful uses of self-driving vehicles in construction will require some humans to supervise the associated tasks. However, with many construction leaders struggling with finding enough workers for upcoming projects, smart equipment could reduce the overall team members required to meet deadlines.

Autonomous Construction Equipment Has Arrived

Some sites already feature construction equipment that works without direct human intervention. So, a primary question is not when these offerings will assist with operations but how long it might take before these products become widespread enough to reach the mainstream.

Caterpillar Trucks Reach Significant Milestone

Caterpillar has autonomous trucks that customers primarily use to haul materials at mining sites. The company recently announced that the vehicles had surpassed 3 billion tonnes of material moved.

The amount only took an additional year to achieve, suggesting an increasing adoption rate. Additionally, news coverage about this feat mentioned that the company had expanded its autonomous vehicles line by nearly 250% since May 2018.

That product increase also indicates an ongoing demand for these smart trucks. Company leaders almost certainly would not keep investing in that part of the business if it didn’t make financial sense.

These autonomous vehicles are gradually becoming more commonplace in the industry. Additionally, some construction companies may initially encounter them when choosing to rent equipment. Enjoying access to new technologies is one of the many rental benefits. Customers also only incur costs when requiring the equipment for particular jobs.

Thus, company leaders may decide to rent autonomous construction equipment first to gauge whether it meets expectations. From there, some may choose to make purchases.

Autonomous Trucks Haul Rocks at a Norwegian Quarry

People often turn to AI in construction to help with repetitive tasks. If a robot tackles a job that carries a high risk of strain and fatigue, that machine can free up humans to do more rewarding tasks that do not have such an elevated risk of injury.

Trials are also underway to see if autonomous trucks can safely move materials between sites. If so, company leaders might use them to transfer heavy things to or from construction sites. Norweigian crane operator Romarheim is working with an autonomous vehicle operator regarding a potential expansion of the technology.

The autonomous provider previously only used its technology for extremely dangerous jobs such as clearing artillery ranges. However, a project associated with a rock quarry will shed light on whether AI can assist with repetitive hauling operations.

Humans will load the autonomous dump trucks with rocks. From there, automation takes over as the trucks follow a set route to depart the quarry and deposit the loads down a shaft to a crushing plant.

The earliest stages of the tests have people sitting in the trucks to ensure they operate as expected. However, if things go as planned, the wheel loader driver who gets the rocks onto the trucks before they leave will remotely command the equipment with a tablet.

Autonomous Construction Equipment Could Boost Safety

The construction industry consistently gets ranked as one of the most dangerous sectors. For example, statistics link the sector to 21.1% of worker fatalities in America. Thus, ongoing efforts occur to make it safer. Autonomous construction equipment could collectively play a key role in meeting that goal.

In one recent example, researchers developed an autonomous excavator system (AES) that was successfully deployed in real-life circumstances for more than 24 hours straight. Excavation accidents account for approximately 200 annual deaths in the United States. However, the team behind the technology believes that automation could reduce that figure.

Work on this project involved putting the autonomous excavator through 10 real-life scenarios on a closed testing field, and then seeing how the machine performed against conventional equipment of different sizes. The results showed that the autonomous excavator matched the average efficiency of a human operator for the average amount of materials excavated per hour. Further tests will explore how the machine behaves in extreme weather or environments.

The outcomes could shape the development of future pieces of autonomous construction equipment and trucks. It’s especially notable that the machine could operate for more than 24 hours without stopping, even in these early stages. That type of consistent work could be a critical advantage if projects fall behind schedule or clients request tighter deadlines.

Self-Driving Dump Trucks Assist With Road Construction

Getting road work done as efficiently as possible is vital for reducing the overall disruption experienced by people who frequently travel in the area. A 2019 project in the United Kingdom sought to learn whether an autonomous dump truck could support the workflow during construction on an English dual carriageway.

The trial only involved one such vehicle that operated away from other construction equipment in a closed setting. However, a project representative said that future experiments might involve more realistic scenarios where the dump truck works alongside human-operated machinery.

The vehicle traveled along a prescribed route while operating, and the truck featured an assortment of sensors that allow it to spot and steer around obstacles. The people associated with the project believe increased efficiency will be one of the main benefits of deploying such trucks. That’s particularly true because such trucks can operate continuously due to not needing breaks.

Retrofitting Opens Additional Opportunities

Taking advantage of this kind of AI in construction doesn’t necessarily mean investing in new equipment. A company called SafeAI specializes in retrofitting equipment in the construction and mining industries to make it capable of autonomous operation. Company representatives say that such upgrades add approximately 1,000 hours of productivity per machine each year.

SafeAI’s technology works with equipment associated with any system or manufacturer. Dump trucks, Ford F-150 pickups, and skid steers are among the vehicles that have gotten more features through the company’s approach. Goodyear and Obayashi are some of the clients currently working with the company, which operates test sites in the United States and Australia.

Each retrofitted machine goes through extensive testing to see how it operates in various temperatures and terrains. The work with Obayashi centers on efforts to create autonomous construction sites, although it’s in the early stages. A test in California involves an articulated dump truck that completes load-haul dump cycles.

People associated with the project believe these real-world tests will help SafeAI set a standard for future autonomous construction equipment. Additionally, Obayashi representatives hope that the high-tech trucks will lead to safer, more productive construction sites.

Autonomous Trucks Could Bring Supplies

So far, the examples here concern autonomous equipment working directly on sites. However, that’s not the only use case relevant to construction.

Work is underway to test trucks that carry freight for hundreds of miles without a person behind the wheel. For now, most trips have a human sitting in the passenger seat, ready to intervene if things go wrong. However, the hope is that these vehicles will operate entirely independently.

If those trucks become widespread, such applications of AI in construction could mean the smart vehicles keep sites stocked with lumber, bricks, tools, and other essential resources that affect whether a project finishes on time and under budget.

Similar to how many construction professionals directly experience the labor shortage when trying to fill open positions, trucking company representatives encounter that issue due to factors like a high turnover rate and an aging workforce. Thus, autonomous trucks’ success could have a mutually beneficial effect on both industries, albeit for slightly different reasons.

AI in Construction Breaks New Ground

It may be years before people commonly see autonomous construction equipment in action. However, these examples illustrate that decision-makers are already interested in the possibilities and eager to become early adopters of the technology.

Since AI in construction powers drones and robots, it makes sense that people are exploring the potential of autonomous trucks, too. Even if some experiments don’t have the intended outcomes, they’ll undoubtedly teach people valuable lessons about better ways to develop and use autonomous construction equipment in the future.

Emily Newton

Emily Newton is a technical and industrial journalist. She regularly covers stories about how technology is changing the industrial sector.

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