Automation Level Modes Terminals
None All driving functions assumed by user. All functions assumed by manually operated equipment.
Basic Driving assistance (e.g. cruise control), but user responsible for core driving functions. Operation assistance (location of drop-off, storage and pick up), but manually operated equipment.
Partial Some driving tasks (e.g. steering, acceleration, deceleration). User monitors environment and ready to take control. Planning and managing the use of equipment and storage space (Warehouse and yard management systems).
Conditional Perform most driving tasks and monitors driving environment. User must be ready to take control at request. Semi-automatic equipment (cranes, gantries, storage stacks). Automated access to facilities (automated gates).
High Performs all driving tasks and monitors controlled driving environment. User does not need to take control. Integration between automated handling and storage systems (Fully automated terminal or warehouse). Automated pick-up and deliveries.
Full Autonomous vehicle; Performs all driving functions under all environments. User provides destination, but does not control vehicle. Autonomous terminal; responds to demand (modal, intermodal, flows).
Source: Vehicle automation adapted from Eno Center for Transportation.
Forms of Transport Automation
Since transportation is a highly mechanized endeavor, the automation of its modes and terminals (including warehousing and distribution) has been part of its development and innovations. While vehicles such as cars have received the bulk of the attention as platforms for automation, other modes such as trucks, rail, maritime transport and even air transport are also subject to automation. Automation and mechanization are two separate issues. While mechanization is the creation artificial (mechanical) devices used to support the mobility of passengers and freight (a vehicle, a crane), automation relates to the artificial control of their operations. The level of automation can go from none where all the operational functions are performed by people to full where all these functions are assumed by an information and communication technology (ICT):
  • None. For both modes and terminals, all the operating functions of vehicles, equipment and planning are assumed by individuals. Everything could be completely mechanized, but none of the operation are automated.
  • Basic. There is a form of assistance provided to vehicle operation, but at all time the user is in full control of the vehicle. For terminal operations and warehousing assistance is provided in locating the cargo unit so that it can be handled and stored. For an airport, this involves display systems informing passengers in real time about flight schedules and gates.
  • Partial. Automation is taking a greater share of the vehicle operations, but the user must be ready to intervene at all times. For terminals and distribution centers, management systems are able to effectively take care of the allocation of equipment to improve operations. Operations are therefore derived from an optimized decision-making process over equipment that can be automated or not.
  • Conditional. For modes, this level of automation involves automated vehicles operating under well defined conditions and where the user must be able to take control at the system's request. A good example is the autopilot function of commercial airplanes that can take care of all normal functions, even landing, with limited assistance. Such a level of automation is starting to be available for cars. For terminals and distribution centers an array of semi-automatic equipment can load and unload, stack and store units. This also includes automated access to facilities where for the majority of movements, clearance and security verifications are automatically performed.
  • High. Represents automated vehicles that can operate on their own and where users do not need to take control, but taking control is available. For terminals, this involve a high level of integration between automated functions, requiring little or no assistance. Therefore, in an highly automated port terminal, automated ship gantry cranes unload containers unto automated guided vehicles transferring the container into an automated gantry crane stacking the container unto a storage area. This container can then be automatically retrieved and placed on a truck for local delivery that have accessed the terminal through an automated gate. Another dimension of high automation is the potential to automatically unload or load cargo at the point of delivery.
  • Full. Involves true autonomous vehicles able to operate on their own in almost every type of environment. In this case, means to operate the vehicle may actually no longer be present. Full automation has existed for a while in transit systems, particularly for vehicles operating on guideways since most of the parameters where under control. For other modes such as for cars, trucks, planes and ships, full automation requires large data processing capabilities and real time sensors so that the vehicle can make complex real time decisions about its navigation within a transport network. Full automation for terminals and distribution centers would imply an autonomous entity able about to automatically respond to a complex demand involving vehicles handled by the facility, their cargoes and their operations. Although such a level of automation is not readily foreseen in the near future for complex terminals such as ports and airports, distribution centers with a level of automation getting close to the full status are starting to emerge.
The recent integration of ICT into transportation modes and terminals, let foresee further potential for automation. Yet, this potential is subject to market and cost / benefit considerations since automation is capital intensive and gives more effective results when applied to large and stable volumes.