Being a teamster is probably not the easiest of jobs. You work long hours, often with unpredictable schedules and stay long periods away from home. Still, it pays the bills, and for millions of Americans, it’s a way to make a decent living.
Unfortunately, it is also one of many activities that is going to be sacrificed on the altar of technological advancements, if the new report “On the road towards the autonomous truck” by consulting company Roland Berger is to be believed. And it’s going to happen quite soon. In the final stage of full self-driving automation, starting from 2025 onward, “ the driver is practically no longer required,” the analysts write.
The technology needed to achieve this is surprisingly mature, and is already being tested on non-public land. In Pilbara, Western Australia, autonomous trucks are moving tons of material between the three mine sites at Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs 4. Multinational Rio Tinto started trialling the trucks in 2008 and other iron ore heavyweights like BHP and Fortescue Metals Group followed suit.
In the mines, there is no driver behind the wheel. Instead, the trucks are supervised by remote operators and respond to GPS directions. Experiments have also been performed on public land. Last September, Daimler unveiled the “Future Truck 2025” prototype, which traveled the first kilometers on a highway. Still, limited self-driving automated trucks are not expected to be series-production ready before 2025.
The factors that are leading to the disappearance – or to the reduction, at least, in a first phase – of human intervention in the cabin, are pretty much the same that are used to justify the getting rid of taxi drivers (thanks to driverless cars) and sailors, in the near future: safety and cost. To which, some add the shortage of workforce, though this is somehow controversial.
As for safety, suffice it to say that 90% of motor vehicle accidents, which caused 26.000 deaths in 2013 in Europe alone, are caused by human error (the percentage is even higher, according to some studies).
So, it surely does make sense to introduce technological improvements to support or replace the driver in emergencies. This is already happening: the European Commission has mandated that from 2015 onward all newly registered trucks must be equipped with lane departure warning systems, and from 2018 onward with advanced emergency braking systems.
Systems like adaptive cruise control have been estimated to be able to reduce truck-related rear-end collisions, currently, the most common type of truck-related accident, by over 70%. In the future, the advancements in vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication will further reduce the dangers, while at the same time having a positive impact on costs. Better management of traffic flow, will allow for less fuel consumption; platooning, when a number of trucks drive together, will also help increase the savings.
The second-largest cost factor after fuel, the driver – Berger says – will progressively disappear in the background. At first, it will still be present, but as a manager, a supervisor, ready to take control of the vehicle when needed, and, in the meantime, in the idyllic future imagined by Daimler, happily engaged in “social activities”, like “make arrangements to meet for a break, make appointments, obtain information about the traffic situation or loading and unloading points, or attend to private matters.”
Alas, the fun won’t last. It’s true that today there are still many technical and legal hurdles that must be overcome before the widespread adoption of autonomous vehicles is possible. From the technical point of view, the main need for innovation is on the software side.
The processing of sensor inputs will have to be so effective that not only the vehicle will be able to understand the immediate environment, adapt to unknown situations, respect street laws, know its exact location in the traffic and take into account its own movement to create the optimal route.
The report estimates that 300 GB of data will have to be processed to achieve this. For real self-driving, the truck will also have to be integrate a fail-operational architecture that protects against technical failure and covers system malfunction. In addition, the per-unit costs need to be further reduced.
Legal hurdles as well prevent fully autonomous driving (although in some States driverless cars are already allowed) and a new legal framework must be established before the scenario envisioned by Roland Berger becomes possible. One key question is, once you remove the driver, who will have the responsibility in the event of an accident.
However, as another report by the Conference Board of Canada maintains, when it comes to automated vehicles (AVs), it’s not a matter of “if”, but of “when”. And, as they roll out, AVs will be disruptive to both the public and private sector.
It’s not hard to forecast growing social tensions, as workers fear to loose their job or struggle to adapt to new requirements, which will be mostly managerial in nature rather than operational. The question is, therefore, whether politicians and institutions in general will be able to steer the change in a positive direction.
The Roland Berger report might have perhaps overestimated the pace of change: it’s hard to take into account all variables. But it could have underestimated it as well: after all, when it comes to technology, disruption is usually quicker than expected. Anyway, we might as well start to prepare. A decade is just a blink away.
This article was written by Federico Guerrini from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.