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Off-road autonomy today, self-driving cars tomorrow

Sept. 2, 2021

"I decided to bring my years of experience pioneering self-driving technology to a more immediate application: heavy industry."  

SafeAI's Bibhrajit Halder

$80 billion.

That’s the conservative estimate from the Brookings Institute on the investment in self-driving vehicles between 2015 and 2017. This cash infusion points to the excitement that has long surrounded the autonomous-vehicle (AV) industry–and with good reason. This technology has the power to fundamentally transform one of the core pillars of human society, ushering in a new era of transportation. Over the next decade, we’re going to start to see this future come to fruition. 

Though there’s been a lot of talk about timelines—in my opinion, the exact timing is largely irrelevant; whether it’s two or ten years away, it will be worth the wait. What’s more relevant right now is the impact this same technology can have today. That’s why, in 2017, I decided to bring my years of experience pioneering self-driving technology to a more immediate application: heavy industry.  

Throughout my 20 years in autonomy, I’ve dabbled in a little bit of everything—from defense to heavy equipment to self-driving cars. While it all fascinates me, not all autonomous applications are created equal, particularly when it comes to timelines. After years in self-driving cars, it became clear to me that the immediate opportunity wasn’t in our city centers, but off-road, in industries like construction and mining.

Here’s why I returned to my off-road roots, and why the industry should consider doing the same: 

Demand for autonomy has gone 0 to 60 in heavy industry

Many don’t think of off-road industries like mining and construction as particularly tech-forward, but in fact, they’re moving rapidly toward autonomy to solve some of their greatest pain points. Plagued by dangerous working conditions and labor shortages that often cause companies to miss deadlines, increase costs for new work, and reject new projects, industries like mining were the first after defense to deploy autonomous solutions and are now moving toward this technology in earnest. Since the first fully autonomous solution was deployed seven years ago, the industry has already reaped significant benefits from the technology, with more than 2 billion tones of material moved without a major safety incident to date.

There remains a significant opportunity in other off-road industries like construction, too. With just 25% of infrastructure needed by 2050 ready today and public sector support for large infrastructure projects on the rise in the US, autonomous solutions can accelerate these efforts and pay dividends. With greater efficiency, 24/7 operations, and reduced downtime resulting from issues like unexpected maintenance trouble, it’s estimated this technology can contribute 1,000 hours of added productivity per machine per year, enabling companies to finish projects 20% faster and at 25% lower cost.

The early results we’ve seen in heavy industry prove the concrete impact this technology can have, and not in five or ten years, but right now. With a global market for autonomy in mining alone exceeding $200 billion, this is just the beginning for this autonomous revolution. There remains a significant opportunity for autonomy companies, investors, and heavy equipment operators if they choose to grab onto it.

Off-road applications have the green light

Perhaps even more important than demand is the feasibility of this technology off-road, right now. This comes down to two factors: control and regulation.

Industries like mining, construction and agriculture have a distinct upper hand in the near term when it comes to rollout because autonomous heavy equipment operates in a completely different environment than self-driving cars. Whereas on-road environments are often chaotic and unpredictable—crowded city centers, cyclists, buses, you name it—off-road sites can be heavily controlled. Construction and mine sites, for example, are secluded from the general population, and typically enclosed, which means autonomous solutions can be deployed without needing to worry about unexpected interference that can cause hiccups. 

What’s more, these off-road projects take place on private property, which means avoiding the regulatory minefield that autonomous applications on our streets, sidewalks and highways have to navigate on top of developing and honing their technology. Make no mistake: these regulations are vital. For self-driving cars to successfully interact with traditional cars, buses, trains and—most importantly—pedestrians, the right guardrails have to be in place. But it will take significant time and iteration before they’re ready. On private property, companies are responsible for setting their own stringent safety standards, but don’t have to wait for the bureaucracy to catch up to the pace of technology. By focusing on off-road applications first, this industry can continue honing autonomous technology in a controlled environment and begin reaping its benefits today.

Off-road autonomy can drive the whole industry forward

Importantly, the opportunity for off-road autonomy isn’t limited to just advancing heavy industry, though obviously I believe these benefits can be substantial if done right. It offers an opportunity to advance all autonomous applications. Though often compared, contrasted and even pitted against one another, there’s a clear synergy between the off-road and on-road applications of autonomy. Findings from one, like how a skid steer should navigate a cloud of dust on a construction site, will lead to better success for another, like how your car should one day navigate a dry, dusty dirt road. 

At the end of the day, it’s not just a matter of what autonomous technology can do for heavy industry; it’s also about what it can do to further the entire autonomy industry. The more autonomous vehicles operate in real-world scenarios, the more data we can glean. More data means more learnings and better technology across the board. Ultimately, off-road operations bring us closer to seeing autonomy not just in mine sites or warehouses but also on-road: our sidewalks, our streets, our communities. 

It’s time to hit the pedal on autonomy today

The hype around self-driving technology has not been misplaced, but it has, at times, been too narrowly focused on on-road applications. It’s time for us as an industry to broaden our focus and understand that a win for one autonomous application is a win for everyone. This technology has the potential to transform not just the way everyday people get from point A to point B, but also how entire industries like construction and mining operate—and when it does, it will be worth every penny.

Bibhrajit Halder is founder and CEO of SafeAI