Last April, a fleet of more than a dozen semi-automated trucks made its way across Europe in a groundbreaking demonstration of driverless technology.
The trucks – from a variety of manufacturers – departed from various locations and joined up into a single convoy that made its way to the port of Rotterdam. The vehicles were directed by onboard autonomous computers, connected to the other trucks in the convoy by Wi-Fi. This allowed the “platoon” of trucks to travel close together at a constant speed, guided by the lead vehicle.
The demonstration showed that, in terms of technology at least, driverless trucks are already here. However, the reality of more widespread adoption of such technologies in the transport and logistics sector is somewhat more complicated.
Factors such as road safety implications, and the job losses that would inevitably accompany the broader implementation of driverless vehicles, mean that adoption of the technology will likely only come after serious consultations between businesses, trade unions and the government.
On the surface, at least, the political will seems to be there. Last year, then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced that a similar driverless convoy trial would be carried out in the UK, putting Britain “in the fast lane”. In practical terms, however, things didn’t quite go according to plan. None of the six big European truck manufacturers – DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo – agreed to take part in the UK pilot scheme.
Despite the advantages of driverless trucking – including fuel efficiencies achieved by “drafting” when trucks are travelling in close convoy – some have expressed concerns that the UK’s road network simply isn’t suited to platoons of driverless vehicles.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “The problem with the UK motorway network is that we have more entrances and exits of our motorways than any other motorways in Europe or indeed the world, and therefore it’s very difficult to have a 44 tonne, 10-lorry platoon, because other vehicles need to get past the platoon to enter or exit the road.”
More widespread adoption of driverless truck technology in the UK might face unique challenges, but would seem to be inevitable in the longer term.
The International Transport Forum (ITF) recently warned that the rise of driverless trucking could lead to the redundancy of up to 4.4 million drivers in Europe and the US, and has suggested that governments need to start taking steps now to manage the impact – including setting international standards, road rules and vehicle regulations for self-driving trucks, considering measures to manage the speed of adoption, and establishing transition advisory boards to advise on labour issues.
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