Tech­nol­ogy and com­merce are pur­su­ing the case for au­ton­o­mous trucks with re­lent­less zeal as the eco­nomic at­tributes of a truck with­out a driver be­come in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent. In dol­lar terms, the tech­nol­ogy has the po­ten­tial to add count­less mil­lions to th

Owner Driver - - OWNER // DRIVER - Steve Brooks

TO HIS con­sid­er­able credit, Volvo Group Aus­tralia (VGA) boss Peter Voorho­eve is a man who likes to ini­ti­ate and in­no­vate. To look out­side the square. To do some­thing more than just over­see the pro­duc­tion and prof­itabil­ity of a ma­jor truck builder.

Take, for ex­am­ple, the launch of the VGA Driver Academy, aimed squarely at en­hanc­ing the char­ac­ter, skills and im­age of Aus­tralia’s truck driver class – male and fe­male. An­nounced at a me­dia con­fer­ence the day be­fore the open­ing of this year’s Bris­bane Truck Show, it’s a highly com­mend­able ini­tia­tive com­ing on the back of an on­go­ing Volvo cam­paign which cham­pi­ons the fact that ‘with­out truck driv­ers Aus­tralia stops’.

Se­ri­ously good stuff. Yet as sure as the sun sets, it’ll be writ­ten off by some neg­a­tive in­ter­ests as lit­tle more than soap­box mar­ket­ing.

Whinge all they want, though, it re­mains a far greater ini­tia­tive than any­thing prof­fered by Voorho­eve’s com­pet­i­tive peers.

Be­sides, VGA has a strong track record for at­tach­ing ini­tia­tives to events like the Bris­bane Truck Show, and this year was no ex­cep­tion. Bris­bane is, af­ter all, home turf for the group and, among a num­ber of no­table en­deav­ours ad­di­tional to the driver academy an­nounce­ment, VGA flew in high-level spe­cial­ists from the over­seas head­quar­ters of its three brands – Mack, UD and Volvo – to dis­cuss a wide range of cur­rent and fu­ture devel­op­ment trends dur­ing the show.

One of those was a gen­tle­man named Hay­der Wokil from Volvo HQ in Swe­den. There was, how­ever, more than a tad of irony in his at­ten­dance, es­pe­cially given Voorho­eve’s ‘Driver Academy’ ini­tia­tive.

Wokil is, you see, both a Mas­ter of Sci­ence and Volvo’s direc­tor of mo­bil­ity and au­toma­tion, and that means he is in­trin­si­cally in­volved in tech­nol­ogy which has the ul­ti­mate po­ten­tial to make truck driv­ing, as we know it to­day, at least a par­tially redundant oc­cu­pa­tion.

The in­ten­tion of that state­ment is not to be alarmist or sug­gest that truck driv­ers should start look­ing for work in another in­dus­try. Ab­so­lutely not, be­cause noth­ing will hap­pen overnight. That said, though, no one should be in any doubt that within the devel­op­ment pro­grams of some of the world’s lead­ing com­mer­cial ve­hi­cle pro­duc­ers, vast re­sources are be­ing thrown at fur­ther­ing the tech­nol­ogy that will bring the au­ton­o­mous – driver­less – truck ever closer to com­mer­cial and so­cial re­al­ity.

So what ex­actly is au­ton­o­mous driv­ing? Sim­ply ex­plained, it’s where a ve­hi­cle’s highly ad­vanced elec­tron­ics, Wi-Fi and radar tech­nol­ogy take over the func­tions of ac­tu­ally driv­ing and steering a truck, par­tic­u­larly over long high­way stretches. At its sim­plest, it leaves the

driver to just sit back and take it easy but al­ways able to as­sume phys­i­cal con­trol when re­quired.

At its most com­plex, it has the po­ten­tial to make the driver fully redundant on spe­cially con­fig­ured routes where the truck is vir­tu­ally ‘con­nected’ to the road.

As for the closely as­so­ci­ated tech­nol­ogy of pla­toon­ing, Euro­pean sources de­scribe it as the use of au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nolo­gies for two or more trucks to com­mu­ni­cate wire­lessly and fol­low in close suc­ces­sion, ef­fec­tively draft­ing be­hind each other to en­hance both aero­dy­namic and fuel ef­fi­ciency. But again, there’s no doubt the idea of a com­pletely driver­less truck run­ning along a ‘con­nected high­way’ in ei­ther sin­gle or pla­toon form is the ul­ti­mate goal for the sys­tem’s true be­liev­ers.

Doubters of the tech­nol­ogy and its even­tual im­pact need look no fur­ther than the suc­cess of tri­als in Europe early last year, where the con­ti­nent’s top truck mak­ers (DAF, Iveco, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Sca­nia and Volvo) took part in the world’s first Truck Pla­toon­ing Chal­lenge.

With the pla­toon­ing com­bi­na­tions run­ning trou­ble-free across na­tional bor­ders from their home coun­tries to a cen­tral point in the Nether­lands, the stated goal of the ex­er­cise was to be a spring­board for the har­mon­i­sa­tion of pla­toon­ing rules and au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy across Europe. Com­mer­cially, how­ever, the ex­er­cise was a ma­jor first step in show­cas­ing the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of au­ton­o­mous truck­ing.

As Dr Wolf­gang Bern­hard, the global head of Daim­ler Trucks, com­ments in strong sup­port of au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy: “Driv­ing in a con­voy is one of nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples to raise the per­for­mance of goods trans­port ex­ten­sively with con­nected trucks. We are con­se­quently push­ing this devel­op­ment.”


On the sur­face, au­ton­o­mous trucks are touted by pro­po­nents as a sig­nif­i­cant ad­vance in safety and ef­fi­ciency but, ob­vi­ously enough, it is tech­nol­ogy which also has the keen at­ten­tion of scores of ma­jor freight com­pa­nies and their le­gions of blue-chip cus­tomers, all ex­cited by the pos­si­bil­ity of cheaper trans­port costs. Af­ter all, take the driver – or at least some of the driv­ers – out of the pic­ture and gone also is a ma­jor cost in freight move­ments.

Sure, the road to wide­spread au­ton­o­mous truck­ing is long and mired in dif­fi­cul­ties of many de­scrip­tions – some al­ready ev­i­dent, oth­ers still to be dis­cov­ered, and all with mas­sive reg­u­la­tory hur­dles to over­come. Be as­sured, though, the jour­ney has started, and from all ap­pear­ances there will be no turn­ing back.

Typ­i­cally, Aus­tralia’s rel­a­tive iso­la­tion and unique op­er­at­ing con­di­tions can eas­ily pro­voke the be­lief that it can’t or won’t hap­pen here. Wrong! Nei­ther our iso­la­tion nor our op­er­at­ing con­di­tions are as unique as they once were.

Tech­nol­ogy has shrunk the world to a dot of its former form and, some­what sur­pris­ingly, Hay­der Wokil was quick to cite Aus­tralia as a sig­nif­i­cant con­trib­u­tor to devel­op­ment of the au­ton­o­mous truck due to its value as a vi­tal test bed for all Volvo Group prod­ucts.

That’s not to sug­gest that we’ll be see­ing au­ton­o­mous trucks any­time soon in sin­gle or pla­toon form be­ing tri­alled across the Nullar­bor or up and down the Hume. What Wokil does fore­cast, how­ever, is that the sys­tems, sen­sors and plethora of pieces crit­i­cal to the safe, ef­fi­cient and re­li­able op­er­a­tion of au­ton­o­mous trucks will need to be tested to ex­tra­or­di­nary ex­tremes. For Volvo, Aus­tralia is the ideal place for op­er­a­tional ex­tremes.

“Aus­tralia is at the top of Volvo’s list for test­ing but it’s not just about test­ing pow­er­trains or chas­sis,” he com­ments. “It’s just as im­por­tant for com­po­nent test­ing and that will cer­tainly be the case for au­ton­o­mous trucks.”

How­ever, when asked if Aus­tralia had the po­ten­tial to be a test bed for a com­plete au­ton­o­mous truck on, say, the Ade­laide to Perth route, a thought­ful Hay­der an­swers: “I wouldn’t dis­miss the idea. It’s not out of the ques­tion but it won’t hap­pen soon. So much still needs to be done in Europe.”

Europe and the US, he em­pha­sises, will con­tinue to be the heart of au­ton­o­mous devel­op­ment for the ob­vi­ous rea­sons that the world’s ma­jor truck pro­duc­ers are based on ei­ther side of the At­lantic and, im­por­tantly, can quickly ac­quire

“Aus­tralia is at the top of Volvo’s list for test­ing”

first-hand feed­back from op­er­a­tors in­volved in field tests.

Still, even among the lead­ing in­sti­ga­tors of au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy, it seems opin­ions are var­ied on the ex­tent of driver­less trucks in years to come.

Take Freight­liner in the US, for ex­am­ple. This is Amer­ica’s top heavy-duty truck pro­ducer which has made plenty of mileage out of its au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy.

Yet, in a wide-rang­ing in­ter­view re­cently, Daim­ler Trucks North Amer­ica chief ex­ec­u­tive Roger Neilsen said can­didly: “We do not see a point in the near fu­ture where there will be driver­less trucks on the road.

“But the tech­nol­ogy that will be needed for fully au­ton­o­mous trucks is the tech­nol­ogy needed for to­day’s trucks; ev­ery­thing from ac­tive brak­ing to lane con­trol to ac­tive cruise con­trol to driver at­ten­tive­ness mon­i­tor­ing.”

Hedg­ing his bets it seems, and some­what at odds with Daim­ler’s in­tense test­ing in Europe.

On the other hand, it’s an adamant Wokil who says au­ton­o­mous trucks will even­tu­ally be­come a fact of life, but, in the next breath, he some­what re­servedly de­clines to give an in­di­ca­tion of when the tech­nol­ogy will be­come rel­a­tively com­mon­place in trans­port op­er­a­tions. The tech­nol­ogy, he as­serts, will come in waves, start­ing with the so-called ‘hype curve’ mark­ing the ex­cite­ment and in­vest­ment in ini­tial pro­grams. Then will come the in­evitable teething prob­lems with their as­so­ci­ated cyn­ics be­fore tech­nol­ogy and ne­go­ti­a­tion find an­swers, and, fi­nally, pro­duc­tion and op­er­a­tional suc­cess.

“How long that process will take, I wouldn’t guess,” he quips. “This tech­nol­ogy will not come fast. It will be evo­lu­tion more than revo­lu­tion.”

Thought­ful for a few mo­ments, Wokil re­marks: “This tech­nol­ogy is all about ad­dress­ing safety, ef­fi­ciency and the en­vi­ron­ment.”

But surely it’s also about the tech­nol­ogy’s mas­sive fu­ture im­pact on the jobs and liveli­hoods of truck driv­ers? It’s a ques­tion which draws a long pause from Wokil.

“The an­swer is that there has to be a bal­ance be­tween life and ef­fi­ciency,” he re­sponds. “Look how the agri­cul­tural in­dus­try has changed over the last cen­tury and more. Tech­nol­ogy has played its part but life still goes on.”

It’s a valid point, and one that only needs to imag­ine an agri­cul­tural

“Driver­less truck­ing is no longer pie-in-the-sky think­ing”

in­dus­try with­out the mech­a­ni­sa­tion that grew from the first use of trac­tors and har­vesters lit­tle more than a cen­tury ago. In­deed, agri­cul­tural his­tory and more re­cent min­ing in­no­va­tions have many peo­ple and or­gan­i­sa­tions draw­ing sim­i­lar par­al­lels with the ad­vance of au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy in trucks.


It may seem a long way from road­go­ing trucks but talk of au­ton­o­mous haulage is, for ex­am­ple, high on the agenda at the up­com­ing Beef­works Con­fer­ence held by the Aus­tralian Lot Feeders As­so­ci­a­tion near Toowoomba, Queens­land.

Keen to dig deep into the po­ten­tial of driver­less tech­nol­ogy, the as­so­ci­a­tion has en­listed the ex­pe­ri­ence of Cater­pil­lar Global Min­ing and its man­ager for tech­nol­ogy, Damien Wil­liams, as guest speaker.

“Cater­pil­lar en­gi­neers have taken our au­ton­o­mous haulage sys­tem to new lev­els of pro­duc­tiv­ity,” says Wil­liams, who fur­ther sug­gests “au­ton­o­mous and semi-au­ton­o­mous tech­nolo­gies are be­com­ing main­stream faster than any­one had ever an­tic­i­pated”.

“This tech­nol­ogy will be used within other in­dus­tries, in­clud­ing the feed­lot in­dus­try, within only a few years. In­dus­tries are be­ing asked to pro­duce more, with fewer re­sources. Au­ton­o­mous trucks are one ex­am­ple of pro­vid­ing so­lu­tions to this prob­lem.”

Still some way from the world of road-go­ing trucks but cer­tainly in­dica­tive of the tech­nol­ogy’s steady ad­vance in our neck of the woods, a con­sor­tium of com­mer­cial and tech­ni­cal part­ners has an­nounced it will con­duct a trial of an au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle in Vic­to­ria to ex­plore the use of driver­less shut­tles in mov­ing stu­dents around a univer­sity cam­pus.

Ac­cord­ing to a joint press re­lease is­sued by the trial’s par­tic­i­pants – La Trobe Univer­sity, Royal Au­to­mo­bile Club of Vic­to­ria, Aus­tralian Road Re­search Board, and spe­cial­ist providers HMI Tech­nolo­gies and Ke­o­lis Downer: “The project aims to ex­plore, through a model de­ploy­ment in real op­er­at­ing con­di­tions, the use of au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to cre­ate a re-us­able com­mer­cial frame­work to sup­port devel­op­ment of the req­ui­site reg­u­la­tion and/or leg­is­la­tion.”

HMI Tech­nolo­gies, a Mel­bourne- head­quar­tered com­pany spe­cial­is­ing in in­tel­li­gent trans­port tech­nolo­gies and sys­tems, is supplying a French-built, elec­tri­cally pow­ered Navya 15-per­son shut­tle for the trial, de­scribed as a fully au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cle with no steering wheel.

A univer­sity cam­pus is, of course, a long way from the un­for­giv­ing world of long-dis­tance road freight haulage, but the Vic­to­rian trial is another step to­wards what an in­creas­ing num­ber of peo­ple be­lieve is an in­evitable evo­lu­tion. One of those is HMI Tech­nolo­gies chief ex­ec­u­tive Dean Zabrieszach, who says: “Au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles are com­ing, whether we are ready or not.

“Many peo­ple be­lieve we are years away from see­ing th­ese ve­hi­cles on our roads, but we dis­agree. In­creas­ing lev­els of au­to­mated tech­nol­ogy are be­ing de­liv­ered so it’s im­por­tant we un­der­stand what is re­quired for au­ton­o­mous ve­hi­cles to op­er­ate safely here.”


But again, what of the driv­ers po­ten­tially dis­placed by driver­less trucks? It’s a ques­tion gain­ing plenty of traction as au­ton­o­mous

tech­nol­ogy con­tin­ues to gather fol­low­ers in Europe and the US, with many ob­servers con­vinced that driver­less trucks will be­come a com­mer­cial re­al­ity much sooner than ini­tially ex­pected.

In Europe, for in­stance, a com­pre­hen­sive study ti­tled Man­ag­ing the Tran­si­tion to Driver­less Road

Freight Trans­port by four sig­nif­i­cant trans­port-re­lated en­ti­ties – the Euro­pean Au­to­mo­bile Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion, In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Work­ers’ Fed­er­a­tion, In­ter­na­tional Road Trans­port Union and the In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Fo­rum – sug­gests the jobs of be­tween two mil­lion and 4.4 mil­lion truck driv­ers in the US and Europe could be­come redundant by 2030 if ef­forts to in­tro­duce driver­less trucks main­tain their cur­rent mo­men­tum.

While the re­port’s au­thors ac­knowl­edge the prospec­tive ben­e­fits in cost sav­ings, re­duced emis­sions, safer roads, and even pro­vid­ing some re­lief for an emerg­ing short­age of pro­fes­sional driv­ers, it also con­cludes the loss of mil­lions of jobs will have dire eco­nomic and so­cial con­se­quences un­less pro­vi­sions are made to counter the im­pacts of

au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy. Ex­am­in­ing nu­mer­ous sce­nar­ios around the im­ple­men­ta­tion of driver­less trucks, the joint re­port con­cludes a 50 to 70 per cent re­duc­tion in truck driv­ing jobs in the US and Europe by 2030.

Mean­time, the pace of progress con­tin­ues to ramp up, with In­ter­na­tional Trans­port Fo­rum sec­re­tary-gen­eral Jose Vie­gas com­ment­ing: “Man­u­fac­tur­ers are in­vest­ing heav­ily into truck au­toma­tion tech­nol­ogy, while many gov­ern­ments are ac­tively re­view­ing their reg­u­la­tions to un­der­stand what changes would be re­quired to al­low self-driv­ing ve­hi­cles on pub­lic roads.”

In other words, reg­u­la­tory prepa­ra­tions are now firmly in play for the ac­cep­tance of trucks equipped with au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy.

When it’s all boiled down, the ef­fi­ciency gains are just too great to pass up and big busi­ness will push gov­ern­ments hard to make those gains a com­mer­cial re­al­ity. Like­wise, gov­ern­ments won’t be shy about max­imis­ing the po­lit­i­cal ku­dos as­so­ci­ated with bring­ing goods to mar­ket cheaper and more ef­fi­ciently.

The prob­lem for gov­ern­ments, how­ever, will be to pro­vide busi­ness with the reg­u­la­tory plat­form to bring au­ton­o­mous trucks into main­stream trans­port op­er­a­tions while some­how min­imis­ing the im­pacts on driv­ers dis­placed by the wide­spread im­ple­men­ta­tion of the tech­nol­ogy.

Given the num­ber of jobs at stake, min­imis­ing those im­pacts won’t be easy. Nor will it be cheap.

As the Euro­pean study in­di­cated, fi­nan­cial sup­port for dis­placed driv­ers in de­vel­oped economies may even prove to be in­ad­e­quate if the sug­gested speed and scale of job losses due to the fast­paced in­tro­duc­tion of au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy are re­alised. Sim­i­larly, as a US re­searcher re­cently ob­served, wide­spread adop­tion of au­ton­o­mous trucks will hit like a train and po­ten­tially re­sult in mil­lions of job losses if ap­pro­pri­ate safe­guards are not part of a tran­si­tion process to driver­less trucks.

Yet truck driv­ers are un­likely to be­come a com­pletely ex­tinct species. Congested ur­ban ar­eas, for ex­am­ple, are not the ideal work­place for au­ton­o­mous trucks. For in­es­timable years to come, lo­cal de­liv­er­ies and the need to re­lay trucks to and from ‘con­nected’ high­ways will con­tinue to re­quire a man or woman who knows how to steer a truck.

That said, though, in­dus­try an­a­lysts and com­men­ta­tors across the US and Europe are con­vinced au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy can and will per­form a huge amount of the high­way work cur­rently in the hands of truck driv­ers.

As we’ve pointed out in ear­lier re­ports, the world’s ma­jor truck mak­ers would not be com­mit­ting vast re­sources to au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy and pow­er­ing ahead with test­ing in real-world con­di­tions un­less the road freight in­dus­try was not show­ing such in­tent and will­ing­ness to adopt the tech­nol­ogy.

Demon­stra­tions such as last year’s ‘pla­toon­ing’ ex­er­cise across Europe leave lit­tle doubt in most minds that driver­less truck­ing is no longer piein-the-sky think­ing. It is real and just around the cor­ner.

In the short term, politi­cians and reg­u­la­tors may be re­luc­tant to pub­licly sanc­tion tech­nol­ogy which has the ab­so­lute po­ten­tial to put so many work­ers on the so­cial and eco­nomic scrapheap. Yet for busi­ness, the ben­e­fits are sim­ply too great to ig­nore or leave locked in a reg­u­la­tory closet, ef­fec­tively forc­ing gov­ern­ments to pro­vide the frame­work for so­ci­ety to en­joy the flow-on ben­e­fits of lower road trans­port costs.

The real is­sue, it seems, is not so much when or if au­ton­o­mous trucks are in­tro­duced, but how their in­tro­duc­tion is man­aged to soften the ef­fects of hu­mankind once again demon­strat­ing a re­mark­able ca­pac­ity to find new ways of do­ing it­self out of a job.

“It will be evo­lu­tion more than revo­lu­tion”

Con­voy: Volvo was one of six lead­ing truck mak­ers to take part last year in a ‘Pla­toon­ing Chal­lenge’ across Europe. The ex­er­cise was hugely suc­cess­ful, show­cas­ing the eco­nomic vi­a­bil­ity of au­ton­o­mous truck­ing

Volvo’s Hay­der Wokil at the Bris­bane Truck Show: “This tech­nol­ogy is all about ad­dress­ing safety, ef­fi­ciency and the en­vi­ron­ment.” But he doesn’t deny it will have a huge im­pact on driv­ers


Un­der­ground move­ment: Au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy is be­ing in­creas­ingly ap­plied to min­ing op­er­a­tions, re­port­edly with big im­prove­ments in pro­duc­tiv­ity

Closer to home: it’s no road-go­ing truck but this fully au­ton­o­mous, French-built shut­tle will soon start tri­als in Vic­to­ria

Like the min­ing in­dus­try, agri­cul­tural in­ter­ests are look­ing hard at au­ton­o­mous driv­ing tech­nol­ogy. Here, a Volvo VM with au­ton­o­mous tech­nol­ogy works along­side a har­vester in a South Amer­i­can cane­field

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