How Far Are We from Driverless Lorries?

Light trails

In April this year, a convoy of semi-automated “driverless” lorries made its way across Europe, the vehicles departing from various points of origin and all arriving in the Netherlands’ Port of Rotterdam. While on this occasion the fleet of more than a dozen trucks had drivers on board, it was nonetheless a provocative proof of concept for a future in which commercial haulage and transportation is achieved by fully automated self-driving – and perhaps self-loading – vehicles.

The trucks involved in the demonstration – from multiple manufacturers including DAF, Daimler, Iveco, MAN, Scania and Volvo – were guided by autonomous onboard computers, linked to each other by Wi-Fi. This set-up allows the trucks to “platoon” – driving together as a wirelessly linked convoy guided by the lead vehicle, travelling at a constant speed and able to brake instantly (faster than a human driver) when the situation demands.

Advantages of Driverless Lorries

There are clearly advantages to the emergence of such technologies. Around three quarters of transportation costs are accounted for by labour – a cost which would immediately be removed once safe, fully-autonomous driverless vehicles are available. These savings could be utilised at all stages of the supply chain to optimise operating costs and even drive down product prices, potentially delivering competitive advantage over other businesses that are slow to adopt self-driving transportation.

This model could offer other advantages and savings, too. Human drivers are restricted, both practically and by law, in how long they can drive without resting – automated vehicles would have no such restrictions, and could theoretically keep driving 24 hours a day. On top of this, there are potential fuel economies that could be achieved by both a constant, optimised driving speed and by “drafting” – platoons of linked trucks travelling close together would achieve better fuel efficiency due to reduced air resistance in the slipstream of leading vehicles.

Disadvantages of Driverless Lorries

There are disadvantages, however, not least in considering the many millions of people worldwide who could be put out of work by the adoption of driverless haulage vehicles. In the US alone, around 1% of the total national workforce are “truck, delivery and tractor drivers” – and it is the single most common job in 29 of the 50 states. In the UK, Office for National Statistics labour market figures show more than 1.5 million people working in the “transport and storage” sector.

How far are we from driverless lorries?

As far as the tech is concerned, they’re just around the corner. However, there is still considerable work to be done on standardising technologies and on working out the regulation – particularly in the case of vehicles operating across borders. The potential employment repercussions of the technology will also mean that the rate and degree of adoption of self-drive vehicles is likely to be heavily influenced by discussions between government, businesses and trade unions.

Taking this into account, it may be a good few years before we see driverless transportation becoming the norm, but it’ll be interesting to see what the future holds for our industry!