5 self-driving truck developments from 2019 and what they might mean for transport

In 2018, we asked 1200 transport fleet managers when they thought self-driving trucks would reach mass adoption. 31% said it would take 6-10 years. 34% said 11-20. Just 10% said it would never happen at all. In other words, the vast majority of fleet managers believe self-driving trucks will become a big part of their industry.

So how did things move towards that scenario in 2019?

Let’s take a look at five of the most notable trends, predictions, and announcements from the last twelve months to find out.

THE AUTONOMOUS TRUCK WILL BEAT THE ROBOTAXI TO THE MOTORWAY

In previous years, much of the hype regarding autonomous vehicles focussed on cars. In particular, several tech firms seemed to be competing to get the first-ever unmanned taxi service on the road.

In 2019, that changed.

As Robert McCooey Jr, Senior Vice President of Nasdaq’s Listing Service unit, told a conference in November, ‘The nirvana is not autonomous driving vehicles for us; it’s long-haul trucks. That’s where the real benefit is.’

This was echoed by Daimler CEO Ola Kaellenius, who told journalists there had been a ‘reality check’ regarding self-driving cars and that long haulage is a much better fit for the technology.

As well as the safety aspect – self-driving cars in urban areas deal with more unpredictable factors than autonomous trucks on motorways do – there is also cost. As Kaellenius pointed out, the running costs of an autonomous taxi service may make competing with established ride-sharing apps and cab companies difficult.

For transport companies, the benefits of autonomy are clearer: lower fuel costs, no need for rest periods, and a potential solution to the driver shortage. So, it’s no surprise to see some of the world’s biggest manufacturers develop their autonomous initiatives.

VERA TAKES HER FIRST STEPS

In September 2018, Volvo lay down a big marker with the launch of Vera.

With no driver cab in its low-profile body, this was an autonomous electric vehicle with low emissions designed to do a large volume of repetitive tasks over short distances.

In July, it had its first project. In partnership with Swedish logistics company DFDS, Volvo put Vera to work carrying containers from a Gothenburg logistics center to the local port, driving on public roads at a speed limit of 40km per hour.

Though the project was limited in scope, it gives an indication of where self-driving trucks can have their first big impact – predefined, predictable routes as part of a repetitive workflow.

And Volvo underlined its commitment in October, announcing it will be reporting autonomous truck profit and loss figures from 2020 on. Discussing the announcement, VentureBeat pointed out that the news came on the heels of Volvo disclosing a 45% year-on-year decrease in truck orders for Q3 2019.

It guessed that the manufacturer was ‘demonstrating that it’s looking to a big transition to an autonomous future.’

Or, as Mikael Karlsson, VP Autonomous Solutions, Volvo Trucks, said, ‘Vera may have a speed limit, but we don’t.’

DAIMLER TARGETS LEVEL 4 IN TEN YEARS

At the Consumer Electronics Show last January, Daimler announced it would invest USD570 million into achieving Level 4 autonomous driving by 2029.

This would mean leaping from the already standard Level 2 automaton (vehicles assist with certain functions, but the driver is always ready to take control) straight to Level 4 automation (vehicles safely perform all driving tasks unassisted in the correct circumstances).

Daimler intends to skip Level 3, where the vehicle can detect its environment, but the possibility of human override is always required. And it plans to do this in just one decade.

Level 4 is the point at which many of the biggest benefits for trucking companies can be realized. The idea that this could be available in ten years should intrigue forward-thinking fleet managers.

KPMG REVEALS THE REGIONS MOST READY TO AUTOMATE

It’s long been established that some countries are more suited to self-driving trucks than others. For example, the open roads of the US make it perfect for platooning. The UK, on the other hand, has a complex motorway system with multiple entrances and exits, so such an operation is difficult.

In March, KPMG took a deeper look into this situation in its second Autonomous Vehicle Readiness Index. Using four key pillars – policy and legislation, technology and innovation, infrastructure, and consumer acceptance – it ranked the 25 nations best placed to adopt self-driving vehicles.

First on the list was the Netherlands. Citing its large number of electric charging points and innovative approach to logistics, the report called it ‘an example for how to ready a country for AV.’ It also singled out Dutch plans to launch a platooning operation in collaboration with Belgium and Germany that will transport flowers from Amsterdam to the Ruhr Valley.

The top 25:

  1. The Netherlands
  2. Singapore
  3. Norway
  4. USA
  5. Sweden
  6. Finland
  7. UK
  8. Germany
  9. UAE
  10. Japan
  11. New Zealand
  12. Canada
  13. South Korea
  14. Israel
  15. Australia
  16. Austria
  17. France
  18. Spain
  19. Czech Republic
  20. China
  21. Hungary
  22. Russia
  23. Mexico
  24. India
  25. Brazil

 

SELF DRIVING TRUCKS VS. THE DRIVING SHORTAGE – A GENUINE SOLUTION?

A few years back, the LA Times predicted that around 1.7 million truck driving jobs in the US would be made redundant by 2026 thanks to self-driving vehicles. Some in the industry welcomed the news. With the impact of the driver shortage being felt more every year, the idea that technology could fill the gap was attractive.

In 2019, we can be pretty certain the LA Times’ prediction won’t come true. This year’s reports are placing the likely year when self-driving trucks actually impact the demand for truck drivers to be sometime in the 2040s.

Some pundits are even suggesting that, as self-driving trucks become more widespread, the need for drivers will increase.

Seth Clevenger, Managing Editor of Transport Topics, wrote in September that, ‘the emergence of highly automated trucks will supplement drivers, not replace them. In fact, as freight demand continues to grow, the trucking industry will need more professional drivers than it employs today, not fewer.’

DFDS, the logistics company involved in Volvo Vera’s first project, see the self-driving truck as a ‘Human in the Loop’ rather than a human replacement process. As they explain, ‘The whole idea is for the autonomous technology to complement the efforts of drivers and ultimately reduce the strain of long-haul drives, heavy lifting and more… As such, self-driving technology is poised to shoulder many of the heavy burdens of long-distance trucking and improve working conditions for drivers.’

So while they might not solve the driver shortage by replacing human drivers, self-driving trucks may assist in another way. By making the profession less stressful and less exhausting, they could, in turn, make it a more attractive career path to a wider number of people.

While the buzz around self-driving cars died down a little in 2019, the excitement around self-driving trucks only increased. With big manufacturers and tech firms now heavily invested in the technology, 2020 promises to bring even more noteworthy developments. Watch this space.

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