Written by Alastair Hayfield, research director with Interact Analysis. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.
Cars and driving are getting safer. A wide range of safety and convenience features – seatbelts, airbags, GPS, antilock brakes, electronic stability control – have lowered fatalities and made crashes more survivable.
Without doubt, consumers and the automotive industry want the number of fatalities to be zero. Legislators around the world are pushing auto companies to add more sophisticated technology to prevent crashes. At the same time, car and truck manufacturers are looking at advanced automation technologies to improve convenience, comfort and drive new revenue models.
Though passenger cars – Tesla, Waymo, Uber – get much of the media coverage, the trucking industry is quietly making rapid progress with automation and self-driving and may beat the car market to the automated punch.
One such technology is platooning. Platooning is legal, digital tailgating among trucks. Two or more trucks drive at highway speed near one another, gaining an aerodynamic benefit and reducing fuel consumption. The trucks are linked to one another by a short-range wireless connection, allowing the trailing truck or trucks to react instantly if the first one brakes, avoiding rear-end collisions.
Fleets are keen on this technology for two reasons. First, it can reduce fuel consumption from 5 percent to 20 percent depending upon speed and proximity of the vehicles. Second, it requires a baseline of automation and safety technology – lane-keep assist, adaptive cruise control and air brakes – to make it work. Fleets see this technology as a way of keeping their drivers and vehicles safer, even if they are not using it to form a platoon of trucks.
Platooning trials are happening in the U.S., Europe and South Korea, with commercial operations slated for 2019 in the U.S.
The commercial vehicle industry is, in many ways, also taking the lead with higher levels of vehicle automation – those that significantly reduce the driver’s functions or replace the driver completely. One of the key reasons for this is the operation of commercial vehicles in off-highway areas such as depots and freight yards. These areas aren’t subject to strict regulations, typically feature predictable and repeatable routes, have multiple vehicles that need to be moved around, and have low pedestrian density. This makes the deployment of vehicles that drive themselves easier and safer. It also has economic benefits: Vehicles driven autonomously can be moved with fewer collisions – reducing operator expense – and can be moved, at leisure, overnight, with less pressure on deadlines.
Stagecoach in the United Kingdom wants to drive buses autonomously in its depots for washing and refuelling. TuSimple, a Chinese startup, is testing self-driving port trucks. And Terberg unveiled a fully automated terminal tractor in late 2017.
The trucking industry is also making progress toward higher levels of automation on highways. Multiple companies like Einride, TuSimple, Volvo, Embark, Starsky Robotics and Waymo are actively testing trucks on public roads. In these tests, either the driver is present to monitor the truck driving itself and take over in the event of an incident, or the truck has no driver. When no driver is present, the truck can be connected to a “teleoperator” who is able to drive the truck remotely using a video link.
Legislation is one major inhibitor to growth in this market: Where these trucks can drive and how they are operated is currently tightly restricted. However, the major goals of fully autonomous truck designers and operators are to make the industry safer and, eventually, replace the cost of the driver.
Will drivers lose out?
One other concern associated with the automation of trucks is that it will lead to massive unemployment. But, Interact Analysis forecasts, very little impact on driver employment will occur in the next five to 10 years for several reasons:
First, the uptake of platooning and higher levels of automation will be relatively slow through 2030. Furthermore, platooning, which is unlikely to create driver replacement, will be the technology of choice out to 2030. This means that there will be very few situations where drivers can be replaced in the short- to mid-term.
Second, platooning is being positioned as a safety and efficiency solution, not a driver-replacement technology. The technical requirements for platooning – air brakes, lane-keep assist and adaptive cruise control – will on their own help to make trucks safer. This will improve conditions for drivers but, more importantly, mean that they are not replaced.
Third, several of the higher-level automation solutions being developed require driver replacement for highway driving only. Drivers would still be required for more complex routes in cities, for example. Highway trips are often viewed as monotonous, and removing this stage of driving would potentially allow drivers to focus on more engaging/challenging operations.
As the industry moves beyond 2030, it is likely that a growing number of trucks will be operated without drivers. However, this still won’t lead to mass unemployment of drivers. Many vehicles are driven by someone who is not a driver by employment – think of utility or emergency vehicles. Freed from driving, the time drivers spend in the vehicles headed to a destination will likely be used to increase their productivity. There are new roles, such as teleoperator, emerging that will likely support some driver roles. Rather than falling over a cliff edge, Interact Analysis believes there will be a gradual reduction in employment within the trucking industry.
In many ways, the development of self-driving cars and trucks will happen hand-in-hand. Much of the technology and legislation needed to deploy self-driving vehicles effectively and safely does not differ between a car and a truck. However, the impetus to deploy trucks sooner rather than later is greater because of the benefits associated with off-highway operation and financial savings through reducing driver costs. It is going to take a long time for this to happen, and even when it does, not every driving role will be at risk.
Editor’s note: Alastair Hayfield is a research director with Interact Analysis. His focus is the global commercial vehicle market, with a particular focus on vehicle electrification and autonomy.