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Are autonomous trucks the answer or the cause?

Once just sci-fi and now borderline reality, autonomous vehicles, cars and trucks, are being trialed the world over. It’s hard to keep up with where exactly we are on the road to full autonomy but you can be assured we’re not far off the starting block.

Right now platooning technology, a road vehicle system in which at least two trucks travel in close succession with the help of driving and control systems is the first step towards the introduction of autonomous vehicles. The technology already works as was shown in the European Truck Platooning Challenge in 2016. Adapting it to real every day conditions is the challenge that is now being tackled. DB Schenker in Munich is the first logistics provider out of the blocks to have test vehicles from MAN and will test truck convoys over a period of several months.

If successful the platoons will operate three times daily between Munich and Nuernburg. This trunking is in our opinion an ideal first stage use of semi-autonomous platooning. All the vehicles in the platoon are linked to each other by an electronic towbar that uses car-to-car communication.

One essential objective is fuel savings, but equally three truck loads with three drivers, reduced to three truck loads with one driver will raise some questions regarding the future of the truck driver.

In the UK the Government have committed £8.1 million to autonomous vehicle trials. We already have semi-autonomous driving systems such as cruise control and lane departure but as the technology develops how quickly will we see driverless trucks on our roads.

So there’s platooning, designed to reduce air drag, cut fuel consumption and reduce emissions but what about fully autonomous fleets?

Full autonomy aims to take away the human need in driving. Truck drivers, quite rightly, are concerned. In the US it’s predicted up to 25,000 truck driving jobs (one of the most common occupations) will be lost per month. In the UK, low-end estimates suggest over 1.7million could be replaced by self-driving counterparts.

Einrides TPod https://www.einride.eu/en is well into development and will be ready for 2020 – it does not even have a space for a human driver. Talk about confidence! Able to carry 20 tons and controlled by a driving station in urban areas, it’s set to be active in Gothenburg and Helsingborg by 2020. Mercedes are in for 2025 and Tesla (of course) showing interest.

Interestingly the UK is poised to take a lead in the development of autonomous vehicles boosting the UK economy by becoming the world leader. It’s actually predicted by some that this shift may create more jobs than lost, although different jobs to those lost. Figures being banded about predict by 2030 autonomous cars and the systems that connect them as being worth £51 billion a year to the UK economy.

Proponents of this technology also cite road safety as another key aspect of autonomous vehicles but trials with cars have been less successful where drivers have had split duties between car and person. The problem is if you don’t need to drive all the time, but some of the time, you need to switch into action from your deep slumber pretty quick to avoid a potentially catastrophic problem when called.

Driverless cars are considered top of a six level system. We’re currently hovering around level two and three. It’s clear that anything less than full autonomy is going to throw up challenges for people (or are they drivers) who ride along.

Back to trucks. What’s also in the way of progress here.

There are still some issues with load safety. Without a driver the load is at risk of theft at fuel stations. Maybe a non-issue as trucks go further on less. How about load integrity along the way. Some cargo needs regular checks. And then there’s hi-tech crime where a criminal could take over the trucks route? Something to think about.

Lastly there’s unions. Teamsters, the influential trucking union in the US is demanding that UPS agree not to use drones or self-driving vehicles to automate deliveries, an historic agreement that would affect more than 260,000 UPS employees. This could have critical implications for the spread of automation in transport and logistics at a time when more, not less, automation is arguably required.

So there we have a brief overview of where we’re at with autonomous vehicles.

For the topic in hand there are many factors as to why there is a global driver shortage but there is also this. If I were starting out looking for a career as a driver, let’s think about that aside from pay and conditions. I’m young and tech savvy. I know autonomous vehicles because it’s on the news. I know people are talking about drivers losing jobs to it, I know it will become a reality.

Why would I invest into a career which appears not to have a future? That’s a good question. If you add in the long hours, low pay and the increasingly difficult road to qualification the picture is not rosy as more and more drivers exit the industry.

Either we attract back the leavers until autonomy matures or we make a clear case that being a truck driver is still a great career. The latter will need some significant changes and if we don’t do either we will all suffer the consequences – in convenience and pocket.

JS

23/02/2018
Author: Jon

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