Mar 27, 2019 - Technology
Expert Voices

Startups pivot to AVs for farming, shipping and more

Illustration of a tractor giving off sensor waves.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite the greater hype around fully self-driving cars, a growing number of companies are developing AV technology for industries like agriculture, construction, mining and maritime shipping.

Why it matters: Many of these sectors use human-operated vehicles in structured, repetitive, non-public environments: Think tractors driving down rows of crops or pickups shuttling materials across a construction site. Applying AV technology in such constrained settings could offer a more straightforward path to market — and an equally compelling business case.

By the numbers: Though often considered unglamorous and overlooked by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, these industrial markets are among the largest in the world.

The impact: In these settings, AVs would face fewer deployment challenges compared to autonomous commercial passenger vehicles, while improving safety, cost and productivity.

  • Increased automation could reduce accidents and injuries in construction and mining, which remain among the most dangerous industries in the U.S.
  • An autonomous tractor or construction vehicle could operate close to 24 hours a day, vastly improving commercial productivity.
  • In agriculture and construction, labor can represent up to 50% of a company's costs. Given the added strain of labor shortages in these sectors, automation could reduce labor costs and boost profitability.

Yes, but: Automating these functions would entail some technological unemployment, a tension most industries will have to grapple with as AI spreads throughout the economy.

Where it stands: These opportunities attract less buzz than self-driving cars, but a small group of startups is actively targeting them.

  • Built Robotics is piloting autonomous construction vehicles, starting with track loaders for excavation.
  • Bear Flag Robotics retrofits tractors with autonomous technology, enabling farmers to automate tasks like spraying, mowing and ripping.
  • Other companies are working on autonomous maritime vessels. Shone is focusing on large cargo ships, and Sea Machines on a wide range that includes ferries, patrol boats and survey vessels.

The bottom line: "Constrained autonomy" is an under-explored but potentially massive opportunity. Expect more entrepreneurs and investors to take notice.

Rob Toews works on strategy at Zoox and is the co-founder of SHFFT.

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