Is driverless technology a real threat to driver jobs?

By: Steve Brooks

The human cost of autonomous vehicle technology may evolve to be just as huge as the estimated financial gains


Technology and commerce are pursuing the case for autonomous trucks with relentless zeal as the economic attributes of a truck without a driver become increasingly apparent. In dollar terms, the technology has the potential to add countless millions to the bottom lines of big business. The human cost, however, may evolve to be just as huge.

To his considerable credit, Volvo Group Australia (VGA) boss Peter Voorhoeve is a man who likes to initiate and innovate. To look outside the square.

To do something more than just oversee the production and profitability of a major truck builder.

Take, for example, the launch of the VGA Driver Academy, aimed squarely at enhancing the character, skills and image of Australia’s truck driver class, male and female.

Announced at a media conference the day before the opening of this year’s Brisbane Truck Show, it’s a highly commendable initiative coming on the back of an ongoing Volvo campaign which champions the fact that ‘Without Truck Drivers Australia Stops’.

Seriously good stuff. Yet as sure as the sun sets, it’ll be written off by some negative interests as little more than soapbox marketing.

Whinge all they want though, it remains a far greater initiative than anything proffered by Voorhoeve’s competitive peers.

Besides, VGA has a strong track record for attaching initiatives to events like the Brisbane Truck Show and this year was no exception. Brisbane is, after all, home turf for the group and among a number of notable endeavours additional to the ‘Driver Academy’ announcement, VGA flew in high level specialists from the overseas headquarters of its three brands – Mack, UD and Volvo – to discuss a wide range of current and future development trends during the show.

One of those was a gentleman named Hayder Wokil from Volvo HQ in Sweden.

Volvo’s Hayder Wokil at the Brisbane Truck Show. "This technology is all about addressing safety, efficiency and the environment." But he doesn’t deny it will have a huge impact on drivers.

There was, however, more than a tad of irony in his attendance, especially given Peter Voorhoeve’s ‘Driver Academy’ initiative.

Hayder Wokil is, you see, both a Master of Science and Volvo’s Director of Mobility and Automation, and what that means is that he is intrinsically involved in technology which has the ultimate potential to make truck driving as we know it today, at least a partially redundant occupation.

The intention of that statement is not to be alarmist or suggest that truck drivers should start looking for work in another industry.

Absolutely not, because nothing will happen overnight.

That said though, no one should be in any doubt that within the development programs of some of the world’s leading commercial vehicle producers, vast resources are being thrown at furthering the technology that will bring the autonomous – driverless – truck ever closer to commercial and social reality.

So what exactly is autonomous driving?

Simply explained, it’s where a vehicle’s highly advanced electronics, wi-fi and radar technology take over the functions of actually driving and steering a truck, particularly over long highway stretches.

Convoy. Volvo was one of six leading truck makers to take part last year in a ‘Platooning Challenge’ across Europe. The exercise was hugely successful, showcasing the economic viability of autonomous trucking.

At its simplest, it leaves the driver to just sit back and take it easy but always able to assume physical control when required.

At its most complex, it has the potential to make the driver fully redundant on specially configured routes where the truck is virtually ‘connected’ to the road.

As for the closely associated technology of platooning, European sources describe it as the use of autonomous driving technologies for two or more trucks to communicate wirelessly and follow in close succession, effectively drafting behind each other to enhance both aerodynamic and fuel efficiency.

But again, there’s no doubt the idea of a completely driverless truck running along a ‘connected highway’ in either single or platoon form is the ultimate goal for the system’s true believers.

Doubters of the technology and its eventual impact need look no further than the success of trials in Europe early last year where the continent’s top truck makers (DAF, Iveco, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Scania and Volvo) took part in the world’s first Truck Platooning Challenge.

With the platooning combinations running trouble-free across national borders from their home countries to a central point in the Netherlands, the stated goal of the exercise was to be a springboard for the harmonisation of platooning rules and autonomous driving technology across Europe.

Commercially, however, the exercise was a major first step in showcasing the economic viability of autonomous trucking.

As Dr Wolfgang Bernhard, the global head of Daimler Trucks commented in strong support of autonomous technology, "Driving in a convoy is one of numerous examples to raise the performance of goods transport extensively with connected trucks. We are consequently pushing this development."

Here and Beyond

On the surface, autonomous trucks are touted by proponents as a significant advance in safety and efficiency but obviously enough, it’s technology which also has the keen attention of scores of major freight companies and their legions of blue-chip customers, all excited by the possibility of cheaper transport costs.

Underground movement. Autonomous technology is being increasingly applied to mining operations, reportedly with big improvements in productivity.

After all, take the driver – or at least some of the drivers – out of the picture and gone also is a major cost in freight movements.

Sure, the road to widespread autonomous trucking is long and mired in difficulties of many descriptions, some already evident, others still to be discovered and all with massive regulatory hurdles to overcome.

Be assured though, the journey has started and from all appearances there will be no turning back.

Typically, Australia’s relative isolation and unique operating conditions can easily provoke the belief that it can’t or won’t happen here. Wrong! Neither our isolation nor our operating conditions are as unique as they once were.

Technology has shrunk the world to a dot of its former form and somewhat surprisingly, Hayder Wokil was quick to cite Australia as a significant contributor to development of the autonomous truck due to its value as a vital test bed for all Volvo Group products.

That’s not to suggest that anytime soon we’ll be seeing autonomous trucks in single or platoon form being trialled across the Nullarbor or up and down the Hume.

What Hayder Wokil did forecast, however, was that the systems, sensors and plethora of pieces critical to the safe, efficient and reliable operation of autonomous trucks will need to be tested to extraordinary extremes and for Volvo, Australia is the ideal place for operational extremes.

"Australia is at the top of Volvo’s list for testing but it’s not just about testing powertrains or chassis," he commented. "It’s just as important for component testing and that will certainly be the case for autonomous trucks."

However, when asked if Australia had the potential to be a test bed for a complete autonomous truck on, say, the Adelaide to Perth route, a thoughtful Hayder answered, "I wouldn’t dismiss the idea. It’s not out of the question but it won’t happen soon. So much still needs to be done in Europe."

Europe and the US, he emphasised, will continue to be the heart of autonomous development for the obvious reasons that the world’s major truck producers are based on either side of the Atlantic and importantly, can quickly acquire first-hand feedback from operators involved in field tests.

Still, even among the leading instigators of autonomous technology, it seems opinions are varied on the extent of driverless trucks in years to come.

Take Freightliner in the US, for example. This is America’s top heavy-duty truck producer which has made plenty of mileage out of its autonomous technology yet in a wide-ranging interview recently, Daimler Trucks North America chief executive Roger Neilsen, said candidly, "We do not see a point in the near future where there will be driverless trucks on the road.

"But the technology that will be needed for fully autonomous trucks is the technology needed for today's trucks; everything from active braking to lane control to active cruise control to driver attentiveness monitoring."

Hedging his bets it seems, and somewhat at odds with Daimler’s intense testing in Europe.

On the other hand, it’s an adamant Hayder Wokil who says autonomous trucks will eventually become a fact of life but in the next breath, a somewhat reserved Wokil declined to give an indication of when the technology will become relatively commonplace in transport operations.

The technology, he asserted, will come in waves starting with what he calls ‘the hype curve’ marking the excitement and investment in initial programs. 

Then will come the inevitable teething problems with their associated cynics before technology and negotiation find answers and finally, production and operational success.

"How long that process will take, I wouldn’t guess," he quips. "But this technology will not come fast. It will be evolution more than revolution."

Thoughtful for a few moments, Hayder remarked, "This technology is all about addressing safety, efficiency and the environment."

But surely it’s also about the technology’s massive future impact on the jobs and livelihoods of truck drivers?

It was a question which drew a long pause from Hayder Wokil.

"The answer is that there has to be a balance between life and efficiency," he responded. "Look how the agricultural industry has changed over the last century and more. Technology has played its part but life still goes on."

It’s a valid point, and one that only needs to imagine an agricultural industry without the mechanisation that grew from the first use of tractors and harvesters little more than a century ago.

Indeed, agricultural history and more recent mining innovations have many people and organisations drawing similar parallels with the advance of autonomous technology in trucks.

Like the mining industry, agricultural interests are looking hard at autonomous driving technology. Here a Volvo VM with autonomous technology works alongside a harvester in a South American canefield.

Closer to Home

It may seem a long way from road-going trucks but talk of autonomous haulage is, for example, high on the agenda at the upcoming ‘Beefworks Conference’ held by the Australian Lot Feeders Association near Toowoomba, Qld.

Keen to dig deep into the potential of driverless technology, the association has enlisted the experience of Caterpillar Global Mining and its manager for technology, Damien Williams, as guest speaker.

‘Caterpillar engineers have taken our autonomous haulage system to new levels of productivity,’ says Damien Williams who further suggests, ‘Autonomous and semi-autonomous technologies are becoming mainstream faster than anyone had ever anticipated.

‘This technology will be used within other industries, including the feedlot industry within only a few years. Industries are being asked to produce more, with less resources. Autonomous trucks are one example of providing solutions to this problem.’

Still some way from the world of road-going trucks but certainly indicative of the technology’s steady advance in our neck of the woods, a consortium of commercial and technical partners has announced it will conduct a trial of an autonomous vehicle in Victoria to explore the use of driverless shuttles in moving students around a university campus.

Closer to home. It’s no road-going truck but this fully autonomous, French-built shuttle will soon start trials in Victoria.

According to a joint press release issued by the trial’s participants - La Trobe University, Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, Australian Road Research Board, and specialist providers HMI Technologies and Keolis Downer – ‘The project aims to explore, through a model deployment in real operating conditions, the use of autonomous vehicles to create a re-usable commercial framework to support development of the requisite regulation and/or legislation.’

HMI Technologies, a Melbourne-headquartered company specialising in intelligent transport technologies and systems, is supplying a French-built, electrically powered Navya 15-person shuttle for the trial, described as a fully autonomous vehicle with no steering wheel. 

A university campus is, of course, a long way from the unforgiving world of long distance road freight haulage but the Victorian trial is another step towards what an increasing number of people believe is an inevitable evolution.

One of those is HMI Technologies chief executive Dean Zabrieszach who says, "Autonomous vehicles are coming, whether we are ready or not.

"Many people believe we are years away from seeing these vehicles on our roads, but we disagree. Increasing levels of automated technology are being delivered so it’s important we understand what is required for autonomous vehicles to operate safely here."

Pros and Cons

But again, what of the drivers potentially displaced by driverless trucks?

It’s a question gaining plenty of traction as autonomous technology continues to gather followers in Europe and the US, with many observers convinced that driverless trucks will become a commercial reality much sooner than initially expected.

In Europe, for instance, a comprehensive study titled ‘Managing the Transition to Driverless Road Freight Transport’ by four significant transport-related entities – the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, International Transport Workers’ Federation, International Road Transport Union and the International Transport Forum – suggests the jobs of between two million and 4.4 million truck drivers in the US and Europe could become redundant by 2030 if efforts to introduce driverless trucks maintain their current momentum.

While the report’s authors acknowledge the prospective benefits in cost savings, reduced emissions, safer roads, and even providing some relief for an emerging shortage of professional drivers, it also concludes the loss of millions of jobs will have dire economic and social consequences unless provisions are made to counter the impacts of autonomous technology.

Examining numerous scenarios around the implementation of driverless trucks, the joint report concludes a 50 to 70 percent reduction in truck driving jobs in the US and Europe by 2030.

Meantime, the pace of progress continues to ramp up with International Transport Forum (ITF) secretary-general Jose Viegas commenting, ‘Manufacturers are investing heavily into truck automation technology, while many governments are actively reviewing their regulations to understand what changes would be required to allow self-driving vehicles on public roads.’

In other words, regulatory preparations are now firmly in play for the acceptance of trucks equipped with autonomous technology.

When it’s all boiled down, the efficiency gains are just too great to pass up and big business will push governments hard to make those gains a commercial reality.

Likewise, governments won’t be shy about maximising the political kudos associated with bringing goods to market cheaper and more efficiently.

The problem for governments, however, will be to provide business with the regulatory platform to bring autonomous trucks into mainstream transport operations while somehow minimising the impacts on drivers displaced by the widespread implementation of the technology.

Given the number of jobs at stake, minimising those impacts won’t be easy.

Nor will it be cheap.

As the European study indicated, financial support for displaced drivers in developed economies may even prove to be inadequate if the suggested speed and scale of job losses due to the fast-paced introduction of autonomous technology are realised.

Similarly, as a US researcher recently observed, widespread adoption of autonomous trucks will hit like a train and potentially result in millions of job losses if appropriate safeguards are not part of a transition process to driverless trucks.

Yet truck drivers are unlikely to become a completely extinct species.

Congested urban areas, for example, are not the ideal workplace for autonomous trucks and for inestimable years to come, local deliveries and the need to relay trucks to and from ‘connected’ highways will continue to require a man or woman who knows how to steer a truck.

That said though, industry analysts and commentators across the US and Europe are convinced autonomous technology can and will perform a huge amount of the highway work currently in the hands of truck drivers.

As we’ve pointed out in earlier reports, the world’s major truck makers would not be committing vast resources to autonomous technology and powering ahead with testing in real world conditions unless the road freight industry was not showing such intent and willingness to adopt the technology.

Demonstrations such as last year’s ‘platooning’ exercise across Europe leave little doubt in most minds that driverless trucking is no longer pie-in-the-sky thinking. It is real and just around the corner.

In the short term, politicians and regulators may be reluctant to publicly sanction technology which has the absolute potential to put so many workers on the social and economic scrapheap.

Yet for business, the benefits are simply too great to ignore or leave locked in a regulatory closet, effectively forcing governments to provide the framework for society to enjoy the flow-on benefits of lower road transport costs.

The real issue, it seems, is not so much when or if autonomous trucks are introduced, but how their introduction is managed to soften the effects of humankind once again demonstrating a remarkable capacity to find new ways of doing itself out of a job. 

Check out the full feature in the August edition of ATN. Subscribe here.


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