Part Three of Three – The Future For Delivery: Autonomous Trucking

Driverless Trucking

This is Part Three in a three part analysis of the evolving transport industry. The first part of this series is set around a broad-brush-stroke analysis of the logistics of delivery-by-drone, and whether or not there is considered to be potential for this fledgling idea to become commercially viable in any sort of sense. The second part in the series discusses driver-less cars and potential side effects should the technology become mainstream.

This third part of this series discusses driver-less trucks, and the advancements being made in this area.

Background

Daimler is cited in various reports to be getting ready to have an autonomous truck certified for European roads around 2025, and are currently testing prototypes on the German autobahn. Daimler asserts that an autonomous truck will be more efficient, provide better safety, and improved connectivity. Connectivity?

In Daimler’s case, the vision is to displace the driver into a new and improved role of ‘pilot’. Kind of like a pilot on an airplane. But no need for a co-pilot or a navigator.

In the case of the autonomous truck, the goal is to displace the dispatch manager role. Someone’s got to go.

The upside is that there is already a shortage of truck drivers in Europe, so job evolution rather than job displacement may be the real outcome in relation to this advancement of technology, should autonomous trucking become part of daily life.

Roles and Responsibilities

So what will the pilot of an autonomous truck do?

Since the truck will need to fuel, filling up the vehicle may remain on the cards.

Real-time and in-depth monitoring the truck’s operation will also become part of the norm of daily work requirements. Sleeping on the job will no longer be as dangerous as it once was, and sadly, the market for stimulants and energy drinks will no doubt plummet as an unintended side affect of work-life re-balancing afforded by autonomous trucking.

Social Evolution

Assuming these heavy missiles are allowed onto European roads, the predicted short-term outcome is that any addition of these vehicles will go largely unnoticed after the fanfare of their introduction. Sure, there will be people cooing at the new bright shiny – at first. After the novelty wears out, it will be business as usual. People won’t even blink when they see a ‘trucky’ downloading porn on their control module (with its tablet form factor) whilst in the pilot’s seat. The assumption will be that the person is instead checking tire pressure or fuel consumption. Or something not as titillating. As if we’re going to know from our vantage point from our driver-less car whilst sipping our champagne.

The real question is going to be: “why should the driver stay awake?” The best idea would be to set audible alarms for any functional limits being met (for example, set an alarm for when there is twenty-five percent fuel left, and in the meantime, watch the Jerry Springer show in peace).

It is difficult to imagine staying alert for a four hour period whilst the truck meanders its way deftly down a highway with nothing to do except check that all systems are reporting as operating within normal limits. Just like they were fifteen minutes ago. Time for a refreshing porn break.

Really though, wouldn’t it be more efficient to centralize the pilot’s job by setting them up with a remote control and a home office? Perhaps this will become a longer term solution as automation improves along the trucking ecosystem and people feel less attached to their big rigs.

On long hauls, instead of changing drivers (or pilots now) at a point along the delivery route, the current pilot could simply “log off” after handing rig control to the replacement pilot. And both pilots could be at their separate houses, or perhaps in different cities, or even countries. And just as easily they could be in the same office whilst the truck is two countries over and almost pulling up to the delivery warehouse.

Perhaps though there will always be occasion when a pilot will be required to sit up and become the driver, such as when the driving surface becomes or is predicted to become hazardous. Even though these vehicles are currently planned to be limited to a top functional speed of about eighty kilometers an hour, it may well prove better to have a human control a circa-50,000 kilogram vehicle when the road surface is impaired by black ice, or oil, or some other hazard where a trip computer might have difficulty keeping up because driving conditions are in a high state of flux.

In Australia, where many important trade routes are not even sealed, and many more are used as often as not as stock routes, it is difficult to imagine a time that autonomous trucks could become the norm, except within cities. Except for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. It’s still a recognized stock route.

Wherever they are introduced, autonomous trucks will certainly create some interesting social challenges.

Social Challenges

Imaging a time where “pilots” of autonomous vehicles will no longer be permitted to drive “old-school” trucks and vice versa, unless certifications for each are kept up to date.

Driving certifications for handling autonomous trucks is likely to be required at greater frequency and be far more technical than that required for “old school” trucks.

It is predicted that there will be a time where pilots of autonomous vehicles will simply let their manual licenses waver.

Further, a class system may develop where certain drivers simply will either not have the financial capacity and / or the necessary personal educational faculties to undertake autonomous vehicle piloting. Having a decent education coupled with a certain level of financial independence may be the difference between receiving a license to drive an autonomous truck versus standing in the queue to drive the last few remaining manually controlled vehicles.

The “real” truckers will have their beer bellies and their working class diner and bar, and the “pilots” will have their restaurants and cocktail bars.

One thing remains absolutely certain.

An entirely new sub-genre of autonomous trucking songs will need to be invented.

 

Image by Graham Richardson, used under License.

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