Agriculture – Self-driving tractors, harvesters and other agricultural vehicles could help solve several challenges facing farmers. For instance, they could help address shortages of farm labor by performing some dangerous or repetitive tasks. Self-driving equipment may also allow for more precise applications of seeds, water and chemicals which could boost crop yields while reducing costs, waste and environmental impacts. Autonomous greenhouses and farms may even one day produce year-round crops and address issues like food insecurity in some regions.
Warehousing and logistics – The controlled, indoor environments of warehouses and distribution centers are actually very well-suited for autonomous vehicles to shuttle goods between storage areas and loading docks. Self-driving forklifts, carts and trucks could help address labor shortages, improve efficiency by reducing wait times, and offer scheduling flexibility beyond human limitations. They may lower operating costs by reducing accident risks and allowing warehouses to operate 24/7 without fatigue or safety issues. Self-driving could optimize routes and space utilization to squeeze more capacity out of existing warehouse footprints.
Manufacturing – Factory floors represent another controlled environment where autonomous vehicles and mobile robots could take over material handling, transporting workpieces between machines and assembly stations. This application of self-driving could significantly boost production outputs while minimizing human exposure to unhealthy, monotonous or physically demanding tasks. Precision positioning and navigation could make assembly and manufacturing more consistent and reliable. Management of inventory would also become more optimized. In many ways, modern factories already demonstrate what high levels of autonomy may look like.
Mining – Hazardous or difficult environments underground like mines could see major benefits from autonomous vehicles and robots to move materials, inspect tunnels and make deliveries of supplies/tools. This application would help protect human workers from dangers like tunnel collapses, explosive gases, contamination and fatigue that are inherent challenges in mining work. Productivity may be increased and costs reduced by continuous 24/7 operations unhindered by shifts or human work hour limits. Remote operation technologies could even allow some mining activities from the surface without any need to send people underground at all.
Defense and security – Military forces already deploy a wide range of autonomous systems from missile defense to drones and are likely to incorporate more self-driving capabilities for patrols, transport, bomb disposal robots and other hazardous duties. Autonomous vehicles also offer significant advantages for security tasks like perimeter monitoring, area surveillance/detection and responding rapidly to emergencies on large sites or campuses. They could help address threats while minimizing risks to human personnel. Autonomous guards and sentries may even help secure infrastructure in risky areas or situations where deploying people may not be feasible.
Space exploration – The ability for high levels of autonomous sensing, navigation and decision making will perhaps prove most pivotal for space travel and operations. Robotic and self-driving vehicles will likely play a huge role in construction, maintenance and science work on the moon, Mars or other planetary surfaces where round trip communication times are too long to rely solely on human teleoperation. Their capabilities to perform basic functions without direct control opens up the potential for cooperative human-machine exploration farther into the solar system than would otherwise be possible.
These represent just some of the major opportunity areas where self-driving technologies could significantly improve current processes and working conditions if safety, regulations and public acceptance can be adequately addressed. Their common themes tie back to addressing labor challenges, improving productivity and efficiency gains, minimizing human exposure to safety risks and expanding what can be achieved remotely or in hazardous locations. As autonomy improves, new applications will surely also emerge that have not yet even been conceived. The impact of these technologies promises to ripple throughout many sectors of the economy and society.