Self-driving vehicles are the flashy technology in robotics right now. But the cars you see Google and Uber testing on California roads are only one application for self-driving technology.
So far, small self-guided vehicles have had far more impact on commerce as they deftly navigate the structured and semi-structured environments of factories and warehouses, spaces that offer less randomness than the open road.
Materials handling, in particular, has been ripe for automation via self-guided vehicles, in large part because its such a dangerous sector for human workers. Self-guided robots equipped with lidar, cameras and a bevy of other sensors can safely and quickly navigate loading docks and factory floors while avoiding collisions with workers.
The global market for these vehicles will reach $2.8 billion by 2022.
Back on the roads, self-driving vehicles are showing lots of promise, but the biggest early impact will likely come from semi-autonomous trucks. The idea is that long haul truckers will be able to put their rigs on autopilot while on highways, where they spend most of the time and then switch back to operator mode on busy city streets.
In 2016, Otto, which Uber has since acquired for $680 million, orchestrated the first commercial delivery by a self-guided big rig.