Vehicle technology is advancing at pace and level 5 (full) autonomy is just around the corner. Trucks that can deliver goods without human intervention seemed like pure science fiction a few years ago, but real-world tests and rapid infrastructure development has turned the fiction into fact. What’s not so clear however, is the role that professional drivers will play in the future. Not only that but the question of accountability will need to be addressed.
The global road freight industry has – for many years – struggled to attract new drivers. Regardless of how important the sector is to national GDP or regional economies it has consistently been perceived as the poor relation to other industries, particularly when it comes to school or college students and their future career options. However, the perception is largely historical and outdated. The days of long periods away from home, hard manual labour and frequent isolation have been replaced by flexible working, autonomous processes and widespread connectivity. The life of a professional truck driver just isn’t the same as it used to be.
And yet it still struggles to attract new people, though the fourth industrial revolution might just change all that. Much has been written about autonomous trucks in recent times, but the fact is that we just do not know how these vehicles will integrate with regular traffic on a consistent, daily basis, nor do we know how the technology will affect legislation and over what timeframe.
Many industry experts believe that there’ll be no need for a ‘driver’ to sit in a cab while the vehicle does the work; they also question how many freight businesses will want to pay for someone to sit idle for most of the time.
But that’s perhaps a little short-sighted, not least because the technology will need to inspire confidence, get established and have little to no effect on retail truck prices. From a practical point of view it’s also likely that the introduction of self-driving trucks will need be phased, with journeys on highways or high-speed roads performed by the truck while the driver takes manual control in urban areas or for the last mile / kilometre. Eventually the entire process will be automated, but there’s almost certainly a role for drivers to play for some time yet.
The question is should drivers be eventually made redundant without the prospect of staying in the profession? The average age of a driver in Europe is 56 and given that it costs a significant amount of time and money to train new drivers, it would seem a missed opportunity to not make use of those years of experience.
There is an opportunity to evolve the drivers’ role; a person who is very often the face of a company. It could be that a driver becomes a company ambassador or perhaps a load manager, maybe a first responder out on the road, or maybe all of the above. One thing’s for sure though, drivers will no longer be drivers; they will be road pilots.
Evolution will help to lead changes to the perception of a driver, particularly where the public’s concerned. As a result the opportunity for career progression and development will be better understood and more greatly acknowledged, and the combination of autonomy and a more attractive career proposition will help to address the issue, at least in part, of the global driver shortage.
Truck Driving of the Future
When it comes to truck autonomy, comparisons have been made between truck drivers and commercial airline pilots, and while it’s fair to suggest that the risks are greater in a fully autonomous truck (not least because of shared road space and greater volumes of traffic) the management of life will always take precedence over the management of goods.
However, there are practical and moral issues to resolve, not least in situations where a self-driving truck must decide, in a split second, between the safety of its passengers or the safety of other road users.
Then there’s the question of public acceptance; most of us would be uncomfortable with the notion that an aircraft flies itself and that there’s no need for a pilot, and yet we still have pilots. Imagine then, driving at high speed along a motorway / highway and watching a self-driving truck join the road up ahead; how will you respond? Will you instinctively move your car further away from the truck? Will your inputs be progressive or sudden? Could your response lead to a collision?
The aim of this article is to recognise the role of a professional driver and to consider the impact of truck autonomy on millions of drivers across the world.
There will be numerous advantages to autonomous trucks including improved fuel / battery efficiency, longer road trains, less risk due to driver fatigue and improved route management. Policy makers will have to agree on and find a solution to responsibilities, accountabilities and cross-border cooperation, particularly as trucks start to be considered a tool rather than an asset and the ownership model is overtaken by lease or rental arrangements.
No doubt in 15-20 years from now self-driving vehicles will be a common site on our roads and that most of the issues today will have been resolved. However, while development of the technology, infrastructure and legislation will continue at pace its questionable whether the same level of thought will be given to the professional development of drivers. It’s essential that the industry starts to recognise the importance of developing social and professional skills to equip drivers with the knowledge and ability that will be needed for tomorrow’s logistics company. It’s also important that governments, authorities, schools and colleges recognise the opportunity to promote the logistics sector by demonstrating cutting edge technology and moving away from the term ‘driver’.
We’re a partner in the FutureDRV project (www.project-futuredrv.eu) which is a European project co-financed through the Erasmus Plus funding programme. It aims to identify trends and innovations in the road transport industry that are likely to affect professional drivers over the short and long term. The project is supported by key organisations such as the IRU and CILT;
The FutureDRV project investigates the future of professional driving by looking into the tasks and role of professional drivers and their qualification requirements in 2030 and beyond, as well as the effects of social-economic demands, urban growth, professional development and vehicle automation.
The project has four key outputs to inform stakeholders and decision-makers;
Figure 1: FutureDRV Partners