Are Driverless Vehicles the End of the Professional Driver?

With automation being introduced into more and more industries, concerns have been raised over the future of professional driving as a career. Driverless trucks are being tested right now and drones are already delivering your new headphones in trials in the UK.

Why then is the industry panicking about a driver shortage? Surely drivers before long will be yet another relic of our increasingly technology reliant world.

Let us consider a point or three in response to this.

Firstly, whatever new technologies are introduced into the industry, safety is paramount and rigorous testing will always have to be the first consideration.

“The haulage industry is increasingly IT led and we embrace technology – but not at the expense of safety or practicality,” says Rod McKenzie of the Road Haulage Association. “All road users – not just transport operators have to be OK with this.”

It is fair to say that, while automated vehicles are already on our roads and by and large performing well enough to please their investors and inventors, the public in general is not as enthusiastically convinced. If they are not yet happy with a small, automated vehicle and are sceptical of the infallibility of the software that runs it then they are definitely not going to jump up and down with glee over the prospect of a 44-tonne truck being navigated and controlled by computer.

Rod McKenzie shares this reservation though recognising the incredible advances that have been made to the technology. “The auto-pilot facility has the ability to remove human error and mistake – but what happens if the engine goes wrong?”

Secondly, we must look at practicality, as referred to by Mr McKenzie above.

One of the automated truck designs currently being tested consists of a convoy of driverless trucks controlled and led by a manned truck that is, for want of a better term, on autopilot, very much like a plane.

Even the designers of this vehicle have recognised that, in the UK, this vehicle may not be useable. Only one stretch of the motorway, the M6 in Cumbria, has been identified as potentially acceptable as most of the roadways in the UK are full of entry and exit points that the convoy of trucks would effectively block.

These two issues will have to be successfully and completely resolved before any automation could be implemented; it is likely to be several years away and affect only some haulage activity. It would be comparable perhaps to an extension of the rail network as the routes that would be suitable could be quite restricted.

A third consideration is perhaps a little more nebulous and concerns what the industry calls ‘Final Mile’ deliveries. We as consumers want cheap and efficient deliveries: we want convenience and full service and invariably we want it right now. Automated deliveries have the potential to give us precisely what we demand.

But whilst we might not object in the slightest to descending from our third floor flat in an elevator-less building to collect our new headphones from the lovely little drone that has arrived at the front door, we might have more objections if the item we were having delivered is a new mattress or sofa or washing machine.

Safe to say, at present, there is little prospect of those items being delivered by drone (though take a moment to imagine the scale of the drone that could accomplish it and how it would look descending from the skies onto the street where you live), and even an automated lorry that can stop precisely on the kerb outside your building would have to be fitted with further devices that would safely jettison your item from the vehicle to the kerb. And then, how is the item to be taken to the third floor flat of your elevator-less building. Will consumers be willing to forgo an actual door-to-door, personal service in these cases where currently delivery businesses actively market that they will deliver to the room within your property that you would like the item to be located, assemble items for you, or connect them ready for use? Experience very much tells us otherwise.

So let us conclude that technology is indeed advancing, and at a rate that is both exciting and mildly terrifying, but the careers of our professional drivers are most definitely at very little risk for quite some time.

“We’re not there yet,” concludes Rod McKenzie, “but we are talking to the truck manufacturers and the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles and are following it all with keen interest and a healthy dose of caution. Seldom has the phrase ‘the devil lies in the detail’ been more appropriate.”

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