A Sustainable Workforce Starts With You

Christmas Future for the Construction Industry

In less than 5 years Grandma and Grandpa (maybe even Santa Claus) will arrive at your house for Christmas in a driverless car.

We first noted that autonomous vehicles were being used in the construction industry several years back when we pointed out that Australian companies were using unmanned Komatsu vehicles in the strip mines in the outback. Their drivers were 1000 miles away at a console of computers like gamers use.

We talked about drones used in the military and how variations of them were being tested for use in the surveying of development sites and the daily observation of progress on construction sites. Those are reality today. In fact, one of the most popular presents last Christmas was miniature drones that could fly indoors and even on construction sites.

That was Christmas past.

For Christmas Present, we know that major suppliers for the construction industry are testing autonomous concrete ready-mix trucks for on-call delivery. Companies are discussing the technology necessary for vehicles to communicate with the highways and to each other. The US government has written and released rules for highway safety for autonomous vehicles.

Recently Elon Musk rolled out his vision for autonomous driverless semi-trailers that will be equipped with battery packs to enable those semis to drive 500 miles without stopping for fuel or for “bio breaks” or for the drivers to eat or sleep. No drivers. There is even talk of trailer trains of five or so semis traveling down the highways at 80 mph and spaced 10 or so feet apart.

The current tests in Europe include a driver in the lead truck, but the other trucks are autonomous, read that driverless.

Google has driven over a million miles in its driverless cars with an employee in the rear seat. Some of them carry “kill switches” but the since the cars have no steering wheels and will drive themselves, the best the passengers will be able to do is to stop the car. Current software development will make that totally unnecessary.

Every major car manufacturer is rushing to develop and currently testing autonomous vehicles for “ride sharing” and other uses. The “experts” predicted that those cars would be active on the roads in 2023-2025. Guess what, GM predicted this week in its investor discussions that it will have autonomous cars on the roads in 2019 in major cities for ridesharing perhaps for use by Lyft since GM bought $500 million in stock in that ride sharing company. They stated that they anticipate being the first major auto company in the US to offer ride sharing and they reported that they will make more money in driverless rides than in the sales of the cars themselves.

That date, 2019, is less than 18 months away. One of my former partners bought a new Tesla recently and shared with me that it is but a software down load away from being totally autonomous even though it still has a steering wheel. That move paves the way for a transition for the skittish to use it like cruise control until they are fully comfortable letting the vehicle drive itself.

For Christmas future, everything changes. I am reminded of the joke. “The passenger planes of the future will still have two seats in the pilot’s cabin. One is for a dog and one for the pilot. A dog? What is the dog for? To keep the pilot from touching the controls.”

There is serious talk of planes in the next generation. Sounds stupid? Every plane in the air today has autopilot even though they have a pilot and copilot. Those of us in the passenger cabin don’t pay attention. We just know that there is someone flying the plane. The crew enters the destination information and the plane does the rest. A former Chairman of a major airline told me one morning that he had just completed a handful of touch and go’s” in one of their new planes “hands off.” That was over a decade ago. Maybe today a young pilot in Arizona or Florida could fly the plane like they fly the drones around the world today. Maybe we could use robots who are dressed like pilots and they could fly the plane or holograms that look like pilots and who disappear after everyone is on board.

Today, architects, engineers and contractors are collaborating with city planners and futurists to discuss how this disruption with autonomous vehicles will play out. I do know that the days of providing “4 spaces of parking for every square foot of leased space” will become a relic in the lease of office buildings that we will build in 10 years. Even some of the buildings on the drawing boards today have greatly reduced parking garages.

We are, as an industry, are slow to change. We still mostly build buildings ‘2 inches at a time.” And we still have a hard time knowing who is on our jobsites since many of us are reluctant to have a “gate” for checking identification. That is changing. Many in the industry have found that BIM, Augmented Reality(AR), and Virtual Reality(VR) make it much easier and more productive for the design and build process to take place.  R&D no longer is a bad word. The investment in craft training, careers and R&D has been shown to give us a return on that investment. But the next change will in transportation will be a significant major shift in our business.

We are about to be handed a disruption in our labor, materials and processes the likes of which we have never experienced, not even when the elevator made it possible for us to build taller buildings. Those companies that will be building ten years from now are already out of business if they are not making significant changes in the way they build.

Christmas future will certainly not look like it does today. I, for one, look forward to it. As a grandfather, I can’t wait for the day when I can summon the next generation of Uber or Lyft to go to see our grandkids in an autonomous car.