Markets & Sectors

Automated Trucks: the future of distribution? 

19 Jun , 2019  

The introduction of autonomous vehicles and the self-driving truck is a fervent subject of debate, but what will it mean for the future of the transportation industry, and for society as a whole?

When we think of an automated truck or lorry, we might think of a fully autonomous vehicle (AV), going about its business in a safe, secure and faultless way, perhaps akin to a factory production line, a well-tuned assemblage of man’s design – on the go, day and night.

While their introduction is heralded as a major step towards a safer and more efficient means of transporting goods; self-driving trucks and AVs are not without their detractors. Despite this, self-driving technologies are predicted to save the global economy billions and bring a raft of safety and social benefits too.

How does an automated truck work?

Self-driving vehicle systems build and develop a map of their surroundings based on an array of built-in sensors, including radar and laser beams, HD cameras coupled to image interpretation software, and even sonar. All these elements combine to allow the system to react virtually instantly to changes in traffic conditions and/or vehicle speed.

This data input is processed by onboard software, which sends instructions to the acceleration, braking, and steering controls. The software includes features such as obstacle avoidance algorithms, predictive modelling, object interpretation (i.e. brick wall, bike or car) and real-time road-ahead monitoring – all of which helps the software follow traffic rules, navigate obstacles and predict potential accidents.

For example, Tesla’s partly autonomous system can detect what other vehicles are doing at a distance, and has demonstrated emergency braking in time to avoid an accident that has occurred many cars ahead, and out of sight of the human driver.

How developed are self-driving trucks?

The true advent of fully autonomous vehicles is still a long way off – the point has not yet been reached where autonomous trucks can replace all the driving tasks currently done by humans.

The major players in the self-driving trucks market have included Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo division, formerly the Google self-driving car project; the ubiquitous Uber Technologies Inc., (who have since halted their truck program to focus solely on cars for the time being); and tech start-ups such as Starsky Robotics, Embark, and TuSimple, who are all making in-roads to the sector.

These companies have been testing their AVs on motorways, but to date trucks still have human ‘safety drivers’ sat onboard, as a backup, with the automation technology acting more as a ‘driver-aid’ than a standalone control.

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However long the wait for driverless trucks to become reality, an evident benefit of coupling the latest research with human input is already with us in the creation of active-safety technology. This gives the driver added support through enhanced software and steering functionality: and presents the type of driver-assisted technology that could evolve into motorway autopilot systems – a development likely to signal removing the human driver altogether.

The advantages/disadvantages of autonomous vehicles

An advantage of autonomous vehicles is that the technology allows for a technique known as ‘platooning’, whereby two or more trucks drive closely together in convoy (motorways are an ideal environment). The truck at the head of the platoon acts as the leader, creating a slipstream, significantly reducing air-drag friction for the following trucks. This lowers fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by up to 16% from the trailing vehicles, and by up to 8% from the lead vehicle.

The impacts of self-driving trucks will have further ramifications. In late 2018, the energy security organisation, Securing America’s Future Energy (SAFE), delivered a report, America’s Workforce and the Self-Driving Future: Realizing Productivity Gains and Spurring Economic Growth, which looked at the societal and economic benefits of AVs and also the potential effects on the emerging and existing workforce.

The SAFE report revealed that AVs will add $3-$6 trillion (£2.3-£4.6trn) in cumulative consumer and societal benefits to the American economy by 2050. Once AVs are fully deployed across the country, $800 billion (£613bn) a year in economic and societal benefits could be further realised.

Yahoo Finance recently reported that the global self-driving car and truck market is projected to witness a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 63.1% between 2021 and 2030. This market is further expected to witness a CAGR of 25.7% between 2018 and 2024 and hit $26.58 billion (£20.33bn) by 2024.

Prospects appear positive for this burgeoning industry but concerns continue to be voiced.

Former chief economist for the US Department of Commerce, Susan Helper, said during a panel discussion of the SAFE report’s findings that:

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“with full adoption of AVs comes the potential for increased job inequality issues – highly relevant for the transportation industry, which is dealing with a shortage of around 50,000 lorry drivers and an ageing workforce”.

Alongside this, America has recently introduced new legislation, the AV START Act, to provide a federal framework for self-driving technology. Senator Gary Peters, co-sponsor and lead author of the legislation, said:

“We have to be prepared as a society to understand that jobs are going to be different. They can be better; they can be qualitatively better. It’s going to require the ability to understand how these machines work and [when we] put a human with a machine together.

The one thing that I am concerned about is that we could see an increase of income inequality and a widening of the gap and a hollowing out of the middle class in this process. And that is a significant threat not just to the economy in this country, but to our very core democracy as well, which is why we have to transform how we’re training people.”

Autonomous trucks and human workforce

However, while self-driving trucks and other AVs are often feared to be competing against the human workforce, there are some corners who simply say that they will be there to complement human endeavours, and not replace them.  Despite halting its truck program to focus on perfecting its car program first, Uber is a company that believes the new era of autonomous vehicles and self-driving trucks will not cause people to lose their jobs.

As reported in the The Atlantic, Alden Woodrow, the product lead for self-driving trucks at Uber, said that they had

“been disappointed to see a lot of stories about how self-driving trucks are going to be this huge problem for truck drivers… That’s not at all what we think the outcome is going to be.

What Uber’s forecasting and research predicted was “a future in which self-driving trucks drive highway miles between transfer hubs, where human drivers will take over for the last miles through complex urban and industrial terrain”.

Public perception of self driving trucks and AVs

Is the general public ready to see an 18-wheeler, 36,000kg mass flying down the highway with no one at the wheel? Perhaps not yet, but the self-driving, automated truck could become as ubiquitous as the autopilot in an airplane.

However, more research and development is needed to assess how AVs will impact drivers, the economy, equity, and environmental and public health. For the public, safety is an overall concern. Although the general public may at first be distrustful of AVs – many thousands of people die in motor vehicle crashes every year – self-driving trucks and vehicles could hypothetically reduce that number – machines do not get tired and distracted – and never drink drive.

For the trucking industry, however, drivers should have no immediate fear of losing their jobs. But the rapid pace of development makes self-driving trucks inescapable: the question is to what extent public opinion, coupled with health and safety issues, will stem the tide to what many see as the inevitable.

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Alex Byles

Alex Byles