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Automation could radically change the future of freight transport

If residents in the Netherlands had been standing beside the road on April 6 2016, they would have been seen a convoy of trucks arriving in the Dutch port of Maasvlakte. As trucks are a fairly standard sight at the port they might have been unimpressed. But the convoy was testing out a ground-breaking automated transport innovation. The lead truck was controlling the speed, route and position of all the self-driving trucks following behind, which communicated constantly via radar, GPS and wifi in an experiment called the European Truck Platooning Challenge.

The potential consequences of automations such as this were discussed at a workshop on the automation and the freight industry jointly organised by the University of Oxford’s Transport Studies Unit and the University of Sussex’s Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand on 20 March in London.  

During the “Truck Challenge” experiment, the platoon was only used on some motorways, and each vehicle, even those following the lead truck, always had a human driver on hand to steer and control the truck if necessary. However, it was a step towards achieving an automated platoon system.

The use of truck convoys or platoons poses important environmental and safety benefits. There are likely to be fewer accidents, as around 90% of all road accidents are caused by human error. The trucks drive close together in order to reduce air drag, leading to less traffic congestion, reduced fuel consumption and fewer carbon emissions. Given that the UK has some of the highest priced diesel in the world, any reductions could make a big difference to the freight industry.

It could also reduce energy consumption. Platooning and vehicle right sizing, which involves optimizing fleet size and composition to conserve fuel and reduce emissions, have been identified as  promising areas for reducing energy consumption. But it is too early to tell whether automation will reduce energy consumption, according to this research, as people could end up driving more in their fully automated cars, leading to increased energy and fuel consumption.  

Another automated system currently being tested is Uber’s self-driving truck, which uses hardware and software from San Francisco start-up Otto, which says it can retrofit vehicles with driverless technologies for just $30,000. A truck driver in the US earns around $40,000 per year. According to the participants at the workshop, which included representatives from the freight industry, it is figures such as these that make the business case for automation clear.

In the US most drivers quit in their first year and there is a shortfall of around 50,000 drivers because the work is relatively poorly paid and solitary. The UK freight transport industry also faces a shortage of drivers – which is set to get worse as a result of Brexit due to the sector’s reliance on staff from the European Union. In the UK a recent Commons Select Committee report says there is a “current shortfall of 45,000–60,000 drivers with another 40,000 due to leave the industry by 2017.”

In this new automated world, the role of drivers would change, or they would lose their jobs. Automated vehicles are first likely to be rolled out on motorways, as they are more predictable environments than town centres. Drivers would still be needed to pick up and load freight and drive goods to locations within cities.

Participants thought that, even when the technology evolved to a point where driverless vans could operate in more complex urban driving environments, people would still want humans to deliver them their goods. Drivers could be “up-skilled” into managers doing home deliveries – providing a human face to the final stage of the delivery service. By making the role more managerial and less solitary more people would potentially be attracted into the freight industry in the first place.

These changes aren’t going to be immediate. We are unlikely to see fully driverless trucks on our highways for at least 15 years, but certain features, such as cruise control are available already.

But the pace of the change depends on how well these “radical innovations” will be nurtured and improved, said Dr Tim Schwanen. Investors and policy makers can help automation technology firms “compete with the existing [non-automated] regime” by creating nurturing spaces to improve designs. Time will tell whether the UK and other European countries can create the environment needed to see these innovations flourish.  

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By: Suzanne Fisher-Murray
Last updated: Wednesday, 22 March 2017

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