Five factors speeding up the arrival of driverless trucks

The introduction of driverless vehicles may seem like science fiction to some people, but the reality is technology giants across the globe are investing heavily in developing the concept.

Manufacturer Daimler recently demonstrated a prototype truck which drove autonomously on an autobahn in Germany. The truck successfully navigated a junction in real driving conditions in the demonstration showing us just how real the technology is. Daimler demonstrated the truck as part of their ‘Future Truck 2025’ strategy when trucks will be equipped with their ‘highway pilot’ assistance system, allowing them to navigate successfully at speeds of up to 85kph.

The introduction of driverless trucks could be the biggest change the road haulage industry will ever see. Here are the five driving forces behind driverless trucks.

1. Costs. Throughout Europe it is estimated around 45 per cent of the total cost for road haulage operators is attributed to the driver. Eventually removing the driver would obviously have a huge impact on road haulage costs, margins and profits. While there is no indication this technology will ‘replace’ existing drivers in the future, the technology will be aid the driver and help free them up to work on other duties and maximize their time.

2. Driver shortages. Another reason behind introducing driverless trucks is the driver shortage crisis. People seem more unwilling to commit to a career as a HGV driver due to many reasons including the long hours away from home, the relatively low pay, the poor image of the industry and the working conditions. This will soon translate into higher costs for haulage operators and their clients. By removing most of the stress from driving by leaving the important decisions to a computer, working conditions should become much more attractive. There could also be the opportunity for the driver role to develop by adding transport management duties that could be completed during the periods when the computer is in control.

3. Safety. Public perception will demand absolute reliability from this new technology. It will need to be proven before any driverless vehicle is allowed on the motorways. Any operation involving driverless vehicles on public roads will need to be part of a much larger system, a system that perhaps is not quite ready.

4. Congestion. One of the leading reasons for the heavy investment in this technology is the potential increase in transport efficiency. With road congestion predicted to continue to rise in the near future there is a real need to break the link between economic growth and road transport. German authorities have predicted truck transport volume will increase by 39 per cent by 2030 unless something is done to stop it. The construction of new roads is very unpopular with environmentalists and many countries in Europe just do not have the funds to pay for that kind of infrastructure. Major road networks in Europe have hardly grown in the past 10 years and that’s why it becomes essential to use existing road capacity more efficiently. Driverless vehicles can help towards reaching this goal.

5. The technology. There have been major technological developments in terms of assisting the driver. Daimler’s ‘proximity control assist’ will adapt the speed of the vehicle depending on the traffic through an integral cruise control and braking system. 3D maps already exist for a ‘predictive powertrain control’ system and telematics products for vehicle and transport management have already been rolled out.

Vehicle manufacturers believe the driver will still be essential to the driving process in the next 10 years. The technology will be there to assist them rather than take their job.

Richard Newbold is founder of Returnloads.net and has spent 30 years in the transport and logistics industry

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