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Up in the air – are automated trucks a viable solution for Victoria’s transport industry?

Following the TWU’s move to block a Transurban automated truck trial in Melbourne last month, the VTA weighs in on how the technology could benefit the wider industry

What does the future of freight and transport look like in Australia? Is it filled with trucks taken off streets around major CBDs, with rail running goods to and from ports before trucks complete the last mile trips? Will the truck network be filled with zero-emissions models, where diesel and fuel stations on major highways now turn into charging or refuelling areas? Will there still be drivers behind the wheel, or will they take a more passive role as autonomous technology evolves?

All of these questions lay before Australian transport associations such as the Victorian Transport Association (VTA). In the VTA’s state, debate over a recent truck technology trial has allowed CEO Peter Anderson to contemplate the future of the industry.

“Automated trucks are a vision of the future,” Anderson told ATN.

“Automation isn’t new – it’s been around for a long period of time and has driven manufacturing productivity principles for decades – it’s even gotten a man to the moon.

“Automation enables us to build better and live more comfortable lives as we can concentrate on other things.”

In Victoria, automated trucks has come into focus through a recent trial launched by toll operator Transurban. In recent years, Transurban has looked at introducing automated trucks to busy Melbourne roads, with the city’s Citylink toll road identified as the arterial for the first trial of an automated truck.

This trial, and the surrounding technology, has been a move that Anderson and the VTA have welcomed with open arms.

“I’d love to acknowledge Transurban and its commitment to what it’s done in Victoria, which is world’s best practice in developing leading technology,” Anderson says.

“Transurban has brought people out from South Korea and developed the technology and framework to complete tests and trials in Victoria.

“They’re doing it for the overall industry’s gain, to show that the technology has a place in our sector’s future. We can only applaud companies like this who are willing to put money into the heavy vehicle industry.”

However, the Transurban automated truck trial hasn’t excited all members of the transport industry. In the lead-up to the trial in mid-April this year, the Transport Worker’s Union (TWU) raised concerns about it and automated truck technology as a whole.

Due to a lack of consultation in the lead-up to the trial, the TWU successfully argued that automated trucks shouldn’t be on Victorian roads until there was unanimous agreement between government officials, industry and the wider community.

“The trial seemed to be a rushed bureaucratic pipe dream that would inconvenience Victorians, undermine road safety and lead to delays to freight including vital supplies,” TWU Victoria/Tasmania branch secretary Mem Suleyman says.

“The community’s safety and the futures of our truck drivers are jeopardized due to this poorly executed plan. It’s unacceptable that these trials are being pushed by corporations that continue to disadvantage our hard-working mums and dads that work day in, day out to carry Victorians.”

Suleyman and the TWU criticised the Victorian government for following VicRoads and Transurban to “recklessly advance these trials” without properly considering the impact it has on the industry.

“Transport is Australia’s deadliest industry, and the introduction of untested technologies could lead to even more tragedies,” Suleyman says.

“Driverless trucks are tested in controlled environments like deserts, not on the vital arteries of our city. It is reckless to test unproven technologies on the Monash Freeway, risking the safety of Victorian drivers.

“This trial’s cancellation underscores the need for these technologies to be thoroughly vetted and for all stakeholders, especially professional drivers, to be consulted.”

The TWU were approached by ATN for interview and were unable to provide any further comments by deadline, with the TWU instead reverting to public comments around the trial’s closure that labelled the lack of proper consultation “alarming”.

“As the primary representatives of transport workers in Victoria, we must ensure that our members’ and the public’s safety is not compromised by untested and potentially unsafe technologies,” Suleyman says.

“Our insistence on thorough and transparent communication has been pivotal in halting these trials.”

This sharp feedback shocked other industry members like Anderson and the VTA, who called on the union to sit down with all involved parties and learn about automated truck technology.

“The fact that the TWU felt aggrieved by the fact they hadn’t been brought into the process in the early days shows an immature perspective,” Anderson says.

“If they didn’t understand and jumped immediately to thinking that automated trucks results in drivers losing jobs, it’s an uninformed position they have.”

In fact, Anderson is confident that the technology wouldn’t cause any truck drivers to lose jobs, as a person would still be needed behind the wheel to control the truck at certain points.

His perspective is that an automated truck would work very similarly to an airplane on autopilot, allowing the driver to exert less effort on major arterials and remain well-rested and less fatigued for other parts of a truck run.

“It doesn’t stop the involvement of a driver – I can’t see us not having a driver of a truck, even if automated,” he says.

“The vision people have of automated cars is it sitting there while it drives itself, which is great until something goes wrong. Unless all cars are automated, it can go wrong.

“Instead I see that there will be a driver behind the wheel, but the concentration levels required at all times isn’t as high and drivers can live better lives.”

Anderson’s vision is that all future truck drivers will be able to operate heavy vehicles safer and easier, with drivers still hopping behind the wheel. Instead, the automated technology would reduce the stresses and strains of having to constantly drive the vehicle, and they could still be ‘fresh’ enough to complete other driving jobs after their shift is done.

“The stress of the job is so high – we’re one of the industries that has the most accidents and injuries, and most are caused by human intervention, not by mechanical failure,” Anderson says.

“The issue here is, what’s the benefit of automated trucks? It’s for the driver – it won’t get rid of them, instead it’ll benefit them. That’s our point.”

Anderson says there’s also a major economic benefit to automated technology, as can be seen by autopilot on planes and the current automated port that is making history at the Victorian International Container Terminal (VICT) at the Port of Melbourne.

Much like these operations, truck driving on freeways has a consistency that suits automation according to Anderson. Automated truck technology is being designed to match the more complex and diverse demands of the job so that it is far more advanced than an automated robot.

“A typical day of work with this technology is that a driver checks the truck, hops behind the wheel, fills out all paperwork and then remain ultimately responsible for the vehicle,” Anderson says.

“Then, when the driver begins the run, they can keep watching and ensure that all goes to plan, before completely the final bits of the run and preparing for unloading.”

Anderson knows the technology has a long way to go – he says the technology can’t be deemed completely safe and beneficial until the human mistake element is removed from roads.

He knows that, if the technology is introduced, truck drivers won’t lose jobs, as the community feedback and social licence in the industry wouldn’t allow for the industry to shed its most vital workforce.

While the path to automated truck technology in Victoria is currently in limbo following the TWU’s successful move to halt the Transurban trials, Anderson is hoping momentum will soon pick up again so that the state can be at the forefront of exciting freight technology.

“We don’t want Transurban to pull out of this in Victoria and we’re left missing a golden opportunity,” Anderson says.

“We know that automated trucks require some degree of human intervention throughout their trips, so we want to make the job easier for drivers.

“It’s sad that the TWU took the path they did – but let’s hope the trial gets back on track.”

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