Hardly a day goes by without driverless cars hitting the news – with big players including Uber, Tesla and Google racing to corner and dominate the market. We’ve almost grown up expecting it, given that autonomous vehicles have long been a favourite theme within Hollywood sci-fi movies. From Johnny Cab in the original Total Recall to Kit in Knight Rider and Tom Cruise’s far cooler Lexus in Minority Report, they’ve got to be some of the most memorable cars for Generation X. However, while the eyes of the world have been on driverless cars, manufacturers have been focusing on developing driverless vehicles that will carry freight, rather than humans.
Within the transport and logistics sector, while some innovations are welcomed, such as automated pallet and forklift trucks
, the advent of driverless trucks are viewed with trepidation by the drivers themselves. Although one of the main reasons cited for developing driverless trucks is the global shortage of drivers – currently standing 45-50,000 in the UK
at over over 50,000 in the USA
– drivers are understandably nervous about how this technology will impact their day-to-day jobs and how it will effect employment. There are many ways in which a human driver will outperform a driverless truck
, but what other challenges does autonomous technology face? Here are some key facts that will impact rollout of this technology and the impact on driver jobs:
Truck platooning requires drivers
In 2017, the UK Government announced an £8.1 million investment
in trials of ‘platooning’. These semi-automated convoys are driven by smart technology and constantly communicate with each other, with steering, acceleration and braking all controlled by the lead vehicle. The cost-saving benefits are clear: the trucks can travel at a constant speed, incredibly close to each other, lowering fuel consumption, reducing CO2 emissions and taking up less space on the road. This tech is being developed on both sides of the Atlantic, with European manufacturers such as Scania, Volvo and DAF taking part in European trials and Peleton Technology undertaking trials in the USA. The important thing to remember about this tech is that a driver will be on board each truck, ready to take over as the truck leaves the convoy, so the impact on the job market will be minimal.
Urban driving won’t be affected
In 2016, Volvo may have achieved a world first with its fully autonomous truck operation in northern Sweden, but this was conducted underground in the Kristineberg mine, far away from road users. A month later, Uber’s Otto also achieved its first revenue-generating delivery, from Colorado to Colorado Springs, completing the 2-hour journey with a safety driver onboard. While we’re seeing autonomous truck trials continue and companies such as Embark haul freight from Texas to Palm Springs, one feature stands out – they are focusing on major routes and highways. With so many unpredictable variables on urban roads, truck drivers will always be essential as ‘harbour pilots’ for guiding trucks into cities and towns, even if full autonomy starts to dominate the main arterial roads. In fact, working as a harbour pilot could be beneficial for drivers as they will stay local and spend less time away from home.
Rollout will be hindered by the roads themselves
Despite incredible advances in the technology within the trucks themselves, manufacturers face a critical challenge: the quality of the roads themselves. In order to accommodate driverless trucks – and in particular the mix of automated and human-driven vehicles – the roads themselves will have to be improved. Lanes will need to be made wider, potholes filled and signage improved. In the future, we may see roads embedded with technology that will actually charge vehicles, but this is a long long way off.
As far as the UK is concerned, our motorways will prove a challenge for fully autonomous vehicles. Our narrow lanes and closely-spaced junctions are a challenge for human drivers, let alone a driverless HGV thundering along a congested highway.
The safety profile of these trucks will, inevitably, be an object of intense scrutiny, especially given the not-so-clean safety record for cars in driverless mode. In 2016, both Tesla and Google Lexus were in the news for incidents involving cars in driverless mode – in the case of Tesla, involving a fatality - while in March of this year, Uber had to suspend its driverless car pilot after a fatal collision in Arizona. Collision avoidance remains one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers.
Silicon Valley startups such as Starsky Robotics and Embark are developing artificial intelligence known as deep neural nets to process and assimilate the millions of data points collected by onboard sensors. This will help the truck learn and emulate human driving behavior, but how good this technology will be at detecting the subtle signs that a human driver picks up on, remains to be seen. Ultimately, it will only take a few incidents for public trust in driverless trucks to be lost, so manufacturers face their biggest challenge in this area.
Barely a day goes by without news of banks being hacked. If even these fortresses of technology and security can be compromised, then manufacturers and Government agencies will have to work hard to ensure that the firmware utilised by autonomous systems are unassailable. Vehicles will have to anticipate, detect and defend against multiple cyber-attacks. While this won’t be an issue for trucks on autopilot, with a driver in the cab, it will be a delaying factor for vehicles that are fully autonomous.
So the outlook isn’t necessarily negative. Although forecasters predict imminent rollout of autonomous technology, there are several constraints that will delay and possibly even prohibit full autonomy in certain regions. In terms of the job market, drivers will always be required to guide trucks into our towns and cities, either within the cab or by remote control. The impact may also be positive, with drivers spending less time on the road and able to work at a more local level, staying closer to home.