Several firms in the US are trialling hands-free tech. ©Getty Images
Several firms in the US are trialling hands-free tech. ©Getty Images

Could autonomous lorries help overcome driver shortages?

9 December 2021

So-called ‘robotrucks’ have been promised for years, and a Fortune report predicted the industry would be worth more than $2,000m by 2027. We’re still some distance from realising this dream – yet optimism remains high

An IRU (International Road Transport Union) survey of transport companies in 19 countries found three-quarters thought driverless HGVs would be achievable in the next 10 years, and almost one in three expected to see them on the roads by 2023.

Volkswagen, Toyota, Hyundai and Ford are experimenting with self-driving trucks. Aurora, led by a trio of executives from Google, Uber and Tesla, is working with Volvo, and Alphabet’s Waymo has teamed up with Daimler’s trucking arm and raised $2.5bn to advance its driverless tech platform.

While rare on the roads, autonomous vehicles are common in heavy industries and Toro and Caterpillar, which make driverless vehicles for mining and quarrying, are keen to share their knowhow. American robotics start-up Kodiak recently partnered Korean construction conglomerate SK, while US tech firm TuSimple was granted a licence to use 5,000 autonomous trucks on roads in China. 

Increased efficiency

There’s a powerful appetite for autonomous trucks. As well as eliminating the resources required to find, train and retain drivers, they don’t need to take breaks so autonomous vehicles can keep on trucking.

In a recent human-supervised trial, a truck using TuSimple automation transported a cargo of watermelons from Arizona to Oklahoma City in 14 hours, 10 hours faster than by human drivers and extending the shelf life.

Safety is another benefit, even when using the hybrid option. When US logistics firm JB Hunt fitted sensors to its human-driven trucks, it saw a 50% reduction in collisions. Also, automated trucks bring a host of efficiencies over human operations, meeting smaller delivery windows and contributing to a smoother supply chain.

Fuel costs are lower because systems drive and brake more efficiently (mining firm Rio Tinto reduced costs by 15% when it introduced autonomous trucks to five sites in Australia) plus ‘platooning’ – when a convoy drives in the slipstream of a lead truck – can cut fuel use by up to 10%.

German logistics company DB Schenker claimed platooning could be employed on around 40% of all distance covered by trucks in Europe. As carbon targets become more stringent, this approach could help manage emissions.

The road ahead

So will we see autonomous trucks resolving the HGV driver shortage? John Verdon, Waymo business development and partnership lead, says “the technology can help narrow the 60,000 shortfall of drivers in the US – a gap that’s projected to widen to 160,000 within the decade”.

But we can’t get too excited. “This sort of technology is really interesting, but we are some way away,” says Michelle Gardner, head of public policy at trade body Logistics UK. “At the moment, the technologies we are looking at are really about improving safety. What we don’t know is how quickly we’ll get to high-automation levels.”

The industry generally divides driverless technology into five levels, with cruise control at the bottom and rising to level five, where vehicles do not need a human at any point. For now, the furthest we’ve reached is level four, where a driver is present to run an autopilot system and can override it if they see fit. However, this is experimental and represents a major challenge, even with today’s most sophisticated technology.

Proximity sensors are still not good enough for road use and the 5G system required for navigation is not yet operational. So though it is possible to imagine autonomous trucks cruising along straight, quiet stretches of the Australian or US interior, it is harder to picture them on busy, cramped European roads.

Regulation is also a barrier. High-profile accidents involving autonomous vehicles have made lawmakers cautious, as have concerns about the risk of an autonomous fleet’s systems being hacked.

So although self-operating trucks cannot solve today’s HGV driver shortage, they could minimise the impact on future supply chains and provide more comfortable roles for people working in freight and logistics.

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