The Automation Revolution

 OP TECHNOLOGY 01By Zachary S. Davis

Every so often, a new technology changes the course of an industry. For the construction industry, the development of autonomous driving technology and its implementation in construction vehicles and equipment might be such a moment.

While the public spotlight focuses on the race among on-road vehicle manufacturers to bring autonomous driving to a street near you, manufacturers of construction vehicles and equipment are also sprinting to introduce automation to your local construction site, albeit with far less fanfare. With fewer practical and regulatory hurdles to clear – construction sites are relatively controlled compared with open roadways – the finish line for construction vehicle and equipment automation may be closer in sight. And with industry titans such as Caterpillar and Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) joined by tech-driven startups like Built Robotics – a San Francisco company backed by some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names and boasting a former CEO of Autodesk on its Board – autonomous construction equipment is increasingly becoming a question of “when” and not “if.”

For an industry in which efficiency and productivity are paramount and that faces chronic labor shortages in many geographic regions, the impact of construction vehicle and equipment automation could be game changing. Tasks like earthmoving and excavating that normally require a team of human laborers could be performed by autonomous diggers and load carriers with minimal human supervision, reducing labor costs and eliminating risks of human error or injury. And because machines do not fatigue, they can theoretically work 24 hours a day and seven days a week. This increased productivity, combined with increased safety, has the potential to significantly decrease costs on large construction projects.

Who Benefits?

Public infrastructure projects could be the biggest benefactor. The country’s aging infrastructure is well documented, and the devastating impacts associated with the recent storms in Texas and Florida and the wildfires in California highlight the need for significant infrastructure upgrades throughout the country. One recent study estimated that the total cost to update the nation’s beleaguered infrastructure is more than $4.5 trillion. And while a solution to all that ails the country’s infrastructure system is far beyond the scope of this article, it goes without saying that building a new road, airport, bridge or water system becomes more palatable to politicians and the tax paying public when it can be done at a lower cost and in less time.

The potential benefits of construction vehicle and equipment automation do not end with lower costs. For one, the use of autonomous construction vehicles and equipment may result in reduced greenhouse emissions. The construction industry has not escaped the worldwide focus on seeking to decrease greenhouse emissions. Many countries, including the United States, regulate construction equipment emissions. According to one recent study from The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, diesel emissions from construction equipment are the primary source of greenhouse emissions during the construction phase of a public infrastructure project. That same study found that equipment operations – i.e., the manner in which the equipment is controlled by its human operator – is a significant factor that affects construction equipment emissions. It stands to reason that machines programmed to eliminate human error, reduce idling time, identify and diagnose equipment problems, and perform tasks in the most efficient manner possible are likely to achieve significant emissions reductions.

Combining autonomous equipment capabilities with other emerging technologies – such as electric power in place of diesel fuel – could reap additional environmental and cost benefits. Last March, Volvo CE unveiled its HX2 prototype – an autonomous, battery electric, concept load carrier that was developed as part of Volvo CE’s “electric site project.” According to Volvo CE, the HX2 uses an electric motor, batteries, and power electronics, and has a “vision system” that allows it to detect obstacles and humans in its vicinity. Volvo CE projects that the HX2 would achieve a 95 percent reduction in carbon emissions and a 25 percent reduction in total cost of ownership. While there is no evidence that the HX2 has moved beyond the prototype stage since its unveiling nine months ago, it offers a promising glimpse into what the future may hold.

Of course, like any revolutionizing technology, not everyone is likely to be sold on the benefits of autonomous construction equipment. Many will be rightly concerned that the technology will result in job displacement. And while that may be true to some extent, many others believe that in the long run there will be demand for skilled operators both to monitor equipment performance and to take over the controls as may be necessary.

There undoubtedly remains much more to be done from both a technical and regulatory standpoint before your neighborhood construction site is filled with robotic machinery digging up earth and moving dirt. But that day is coming, and it will likely be here sooner than you think.

Zachary S. Davis is an attorney at Stoel Rives LLP where he is a member of the Construction and Design Section of the Real Estate, Development, and Construction Group. He may be reached at zachary.davis@stoel.com.

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