27th April 2021

Can self-driving trucks solve the driver shortage, or are humans irreplaceable?

Self-driving trucks are no longer a futuristic fantasy, and industry experts suggest that driverless HGVs will plug the gap in the driver shortage. But can an automated vehicle replace human instinct and experience? In this article, we will delve into the role of autonomous trucks in the industry and discuss if they really are the solution to fill vacant HGV driving positions.

How do driverless trucks work?

Autonomous lorries rely heavily on a range of technologies to ensure they operate safely and efficiently. On-board sensors include cameras, lidars and radars – all of which feed data to a computer that controls the vehicle.  

The artificial intelligence systems that manage automated trucks require specific and extensive training. Fortunately, the long-distance, fixed routes that HGVs traditionally travel along lend themselves well to driverless vehicle training. The predictability of motorways is easier to automate, but the volatile nature of an inner-city road is a lot harder to navigate for driverless trucks. 

For this reason, American engineers, Ansys, predict that automated trucks may become mainstream before driverless cars are widespread throughout cities.  

A 2017 report from 5 News about the future of self-driving lorries. 

The leading engineering magazine, IEEE Spectrum, argues that lorries provide a better platform for autonomy because of their larger size. Not only does an HGV supply more power for vehicle computers, but their larger structures also grant ideal bases for sensors that are higher off the ground and improve the field of vision. 

Are self-driving trucks on the road? 

Driverless trucks could be on UK roads by 2030, according to Zenzic. Created by government and industry, Zenzic focuses on Britain’s capability in the self-driving sector. But around the globe, at least 12 other technology giants – including Google – are currently racing to create fully driverless lorries. 

TuSimple are a US-based self-driving truck specialist who claims they will achieve Level 4 autonomy by 2024. The levels refer to how advanced the autonomy is and how little human interaction will be required. Out of five levels, Level 4 is ‘high automation’ and means vehicles will be operational without human drivers. TuSimple are already carrying out driverless delivery tests in Arizona and New Mexico but under human supervision.

A short video highlighting Scania's self-driving tests in motorway traffic. 

The BBC reported on the plans to test small convoys of partially self-driving lorries on major British roads in late 2018. The driverless assessment involved three lorries travelling in formation, using a technique called ‘platooning’ – with all acceleration and braking controlled by a human driver in the lead vehicle.

Are autonomous trucks safe?

According to an article by Highways Today, the emergence of self-driving truck companies is likely to reduce road accidents involving lorries. The story points to the powerful computers which will control HGVs. Artificial intelligence will constantly monitor the multiple sensors and cameras to ensure the vehicle never speeds, always stays in the right lane and follows all traffic rules. 
Highways Today also points out that a driverless lorry will be exempt from human errors, including using the phone while driving, drink driving, becoming distracted or falling asleep at the wheel.
However, drivers will need to be inside the cab for the foreseeable future to account for any incidents, and mechanical failures prove that driver safety is still dependent on human drivers. 

Will driverless trucks replace drivers?

Advocates of self-driving technology argue that autonomous trucks will be safer and more fuel-efficient than a manned lorry. A self-driving lorry will reportedly be able to operate 24 hours a day and will be able to maintain a consistent mileage rate. Without a human inside the self-driving lorry, there will be reduced breaks, no holidays, and cargo is expected to arrive at a destination quicker than before.
The professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Leonard, predicts that self-driving technology is likely to disrupt millions of jobs in the United States. 
But what about the 320,000 HGV drivers currently operating in the UK? These drivers have devoted their careers to hauling cargo throughout the UK and Europe. Should driving jobs be replaced by a driverless lorry? Particularly when you consider how vital truck drivers and the haulage industry have been during the Covid-19 pandemic. 

The good news is that there are still experts that believe this will not be the end of human HGV drivers. Brian Fielkow, president of the American trucking company, Jetco Delivery, told FOX Business, “technology is going to bring the driver into the truck, not push them out. [It will] redefine the role of the driver.”
Driving roles may have to adapt and evolve to marry the ever-developing nature of the industry, but human HGV drivers will remain important to the sector. The BBC quoted Raj Venkatesan, a professor of business administration from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business. 
He stated, "it’s not clear at all now whether there will even be displacement. You need the back-up driver. Within the next five or 10 years, it seems reasonable to expect some movement towards autonomy, but with a co-pilot. In my view, it's like a long-haul flight. The plane can be put on autopilot, but you still have the pilot."

Do you feel like your job will come under pressure from self-driving technology, and would you be open to accepting a redefined position in a potential driverless future? 
Josh Cousens | SNAP. 

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