Fu­ture shock­waves

Driver­less truck re­search in the United States and Europe is rais­ing con­cerns about pos­si­ble flawed tech­nol­ogy and driv­ers’ liveli­hood. Soon Aus­tralia will feel its im­pact. Tony Shel­don writes

Owner Driver - - OWNER // DRIVER - Man­ag­ing the Tran­si­tion to Driver­less Road Freight Trans­port go to the web­site: bit.ly/ITF_Re­port

IF YOU are to be­lieve the head­lines, truck driv­ers will soon be a thing of the past as driver­less ve­hi­cles take over. Tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies and truck and car mak­ers are no doubt putting re­sources into the driver­less model.

Uber re­cently set up a re­search cen­tre for driver­less cars while in Cal­i­for­nia alone there are 29 com­pa­nies that have re­ceived test per­mits for driver­less ve­hi­cles. Some com­pa­nies pre­dict a driver­less fu­ture in the not too dis­tant. An­a­lysts Mor­gan Stan­ley says they will be freely avail­able on the mass mar­ket by 2026 with car own­er­ship ex­tinct by 2046.

The Aus­tralian Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment ap­pears to back th­ese kinds of changes to our so­ci­ety, with Mal­colm Turn­bull say­ing in his first state­ment as prime min­is­ter: “We have to recog­nise that the dis­rup­tion that we see driven by tech­nol­ogy, the volatil­ity in change is our friend if we are ag­ile and smart enough to take ad­van­tage of it.”

No doubt the Gov­ern­ment has bought into the sales pitch as to why a driver­less fu­ture will be a bet­ter one: safer roads and a cleaner en­vi­ron­ment be­cause of less con­ges­tion.

But from a trans­port in­dus­try point of view, there are a few is­sues to con­sider. Tech­nol­ogy is far from in­fal­li­ble and we can see this in our every­day lives. Our banks reg­u­larly an­nounce prob­lems with their sys­tems where peo­ple are locked out from ac­cess­ing their money on­line or at ATMs. Hand­ing over con­trol of heavy ve­hi­cles to ma­chines will in­volve tak­ing a punt on the tech­nol­ogy never fail­ing.

There is also a moral is­sue: are we happy for a ma­chine to be given con­trol over choos­ing whose lives to pro­tect in the event of an un­ex­pected road in­ci­dent such as a pedes­trian step­ping out?

Not only is tech­nol­ogy in­fal­li­ble, it is also open to be­ing hacked. Two years ago hack­ers tasked with test­ing soft­ware in the US were able to take con­trol of a Jeep Chero­kee while it was driv­ing. There is no doubt a po­ten­tial ex­ists for hack­ers to dis­rupt traf­fic or com­mit acts of ter­ror­ism through this tech­nol­ogy. Is that a risk we are will­ing to take?

But the big­ger is­sue for our in­dus­try comes down to one thing: jobs.

Truck­ing pro­vides tens of thou­sands of jobs across Aus­tralia. Truck driv­ers, like the bulk of the com­mu­nity, aren’t app de­vel­op­ers. They are hard-work­ing mem­bers of our com­mu­ni­ties who will need qual­ity em­ploy­ment in the fu­ture. Any­thing less aban­dons them, their loved ones and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.


Truck driver Frank Black has been in­volved in fo­rums on this is­sue and will fea­ture in an ABC Late­line tele­vi­sion pro­gram in Au­gust on the driver­less fu­ture.

“The ex­pe­ri­ence a truck driver brings to the job in an­tic­i­pat­ing what might hap­pen up the road or around the bend can’t be re­placed by tech­nol­ogy,” Frank says.

“I’ve been a truck driver for 30 years driv­ing my own truck. It seems a bit far-fetched for gov­ern­ments and com­pa­nies to as­sume they can re­place that ex­pe­ri­ence overnight.”

Pro­fes­sor Jim Stan­ford, direc­tor of the Cen­tre for Fu­ture Work at the Aus­tralia In­sti­tute, summed it up well when he said dur­ing a ses­sion at our re­cent Trans­port Work­ers Union (TWU) Na­tional Coun­cil that the “new econ­omy” is not so new since work­ers are still fight­ing for dig­nity and se­cu­rity in their jobs.

The TWU has been call­ing for some time for the Fed­eral Gov­ern­ment to adopt a strat­egy to deal with tech­no­log­i­cal changes which are hav­ing the ef­fect of reducing con­di­tions for em­ploy­ees and dras­ti­cally cut­ting cer­tain jobs al­to­gether. The gov­ern­ment’s job is to reg­u­late our so­ci­ety and it needs to do this to pro­tect peo­ple’s liveli­hoods.

As part of the TWU’s af­fil­i­a­tion to the In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion and my own role as chair of its Road Trans­port Sec­tion, we have been in­volved in a re­port* by the Or­gan­i­sa­tion for Eco­nomic Co-op­er­a­tion and Devel­op­ment on the fu­ture of truck­ing.

It shows more than two mil­lion driv­ers across the US and Europe could be di­rectly dis­placed by driver­less tech­nol­ogy by 2030.

The re­port rec­om­mends that gov­ern­ments should put in place mech­a­nisms to deal with the tran­si­tion to driver­less trucks, such as ad­vi­sory boards made up of groups from the truck­ing in­dus­try, a per­mit sys­tem to con­trol the speed of up­take of driver­less trucks and fund­ing to help dis­placed truck driv­ers.

But there is another di­men­sion to this is­sue. While some are al­ready herald­ing the dawn of the driver­less fu­ture, there has been a quiet cau­tion on it from the tech com­pa­nies them­selves. The tech­nol­ogy to de­velop driver­less ve­hi­cles has been in ex­is­tence since 1995 but has failed to re­sult in mass pro­duc­tion. Su­ing an $800 bil­lion tech gi­ant over a death be­cause the soft­ware al­lowed it to hap­pen could crip­ple the busi­ness.

The cau­tion which is pos­si­bly be­ing ex­er­cised by th­ese com­pa­nies should alert our gov­ern­ment to hold off on their breath­less en­dorse­ment of tech­nol­ogy and dis­rup­tion. Be­cause tech­nol­ogy will only work if it serves all of so­ci­ety not just the few.

*For the full OECD re­port


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