Autonomous Trucks: What will be their impact on your business? Every industry has a dream – something it works towards, but something that is still a fairly distant reality. For space, it’s a mission to Mars and space travel, but for commercial road transport, the focus has recently been on Autonomous Vehicles.
By Klaus Burkart, Chief Shared Service Centre Officer at Eurowag
How far are we from a fully autonomous truck?
In fact, multiple truck manufacturers have recently been piloting self-driving trucks. Both Daimler and Volvo, to name a few established OEMs, have successfully managed to pioneer and test autonomous solutions without announcing a clear date for commercial production.1, 2 However, the future seems to be much closer than we think.
Although many technical problems are still unresolved, proponents agree that increased productivity in the realm of cost, time and safety for instance by the autonomous trucks is a positive response to a stable demand for 24/7 always-on millennial lifestyle.4 In addition, pragmatically, as a shortage of truck drivers in Europe which the industry is currently experiencing, the autonomous truck might sound like an ideal solution for your long-term business strategy. But is it though?
Today, we want to highlight just a few ways in which autonomous trucks might affect your business in the coming future.
Potential savings on fuel and wages
There are some new opportunities and challenges of self-driving trucks, which differ from self-driving cars, though main characteristics of those two remain similar. Self-driving trucks intend to platoon over longer distances, to reduce wind drag to save on fuel. In addition, required truck parking alongside highways could reduce somehow.
In a highly commoditized and competitive industry such as commercial road transport, the gains are likely to be partly if not wholly shared across the supply chain. This means, that although your fuel costs might go down, and your driver wages might decrease or even go away as a cost factor, the cost saving is unlikely to remain with the hauler in the long term due to traditionally fierce competition in this market.
Platooning with or without Driver
Platooning brings not only benefits for wind drag and cost saving on fuel. Letting the truck drive itself part of the time, it will help to complete routes sooner: a driver still present in the truck could have its regulatory rest or do paperwork, or look for the next load to catch. This definitely saves your money.
Road user safety remains a major concern
According to a recent ETAC study6, 85% of all road accidents are caused by human error, autonomous trucks might appear as one of the answers to the problem. Nevertheless, the ethical question of whether we are prepared to put the lives of road users in the hands of an algorithm remains unanswered and is likely to remain unanswered for the next few years, despite several European Union bodies making noticeable advances in this field.
IRU has recently recommended in a comprehensive review to continue driverless truck pilot projects to test vehicles, network technology and communications protocols while establishing international standards for driverless vehicles and a temporary transition advisory board for the trucking industry.5 Autonomous trucks are likely to continue to be a distant concept without these recommendations followed through.
The unemployment rate will increase – are we ready?
At a time when there is a fear of threats that automation poses to jobs, autonomous trucks will affect an enormous number of blue-collar workers. We’re talking about several million drivers jobs in the European Union. There is a lot at stake when drivers account for a third of the per-kilometre cost of operating a truck. Is our society ready for the changes brought about by automation and robotics?
Technology is unlikely to replace truck drivers entirely, but it may certainly alter the nature of the job. Some vehicles (e.g. transporting valuables, luxury or expensive goods with higher value like smartphones, laptops), as well as dangerous goods, will need to be guarded or accompanied by security personnel if they wouldn’t have a human at the wheel. Others will simply not trust the algorithm to make a decision concerning the cargo safety.
Furthermore, with current insurance premiums linked to the risk profile of specific drivers behaviour in multiple EU countries, it’s hard to believe that a human being will disappear from the equation completely.
So what’s the verdict for autonomous vehicles?
Although the drive in the industry for autonomous vehicles is quite clear, it might be more of a gradual evolution rather than a revolution we are witnessing. Vehicle manufacturers, such as Volvo, intend at least for the time being to limit the usage of fully autonomous vehicles to private locations such as mines and ports. On public roads, the company will use the technology alongside other driver assist systems to support the driver, not to replace him.
Nonetheless, it’s still a question of how well self-driving vehicles would handle dangerous situations which could arise from unpredictable other participants on the road, or poor surface conditions. OEM’s will need to demonstrate that sensors and code can match the situational awareness of a professional trucker if they were to proceed with bringing autonomous vehicles to the mass market.4
And with regulation involved at a much higher degree than in, for instance, private passenger hire & taxi, both existing OEMs as well as tech companies will need to play by the book and won’t be able to rely simply on continuous consumer demand.