Autonomous trucks – will it affect also fuel management process?
There have been some pretty disturbing headlines in the mainstream media and trade press, not so much for haulage company owners, but for one of their critical assets – drivers. As recently as February, the Guardian in the UK wrote: Driverless trucks: economic tsunami may swallow one of most common US jobs. Another British-based newspaper, The Financial Times headlined in March: Out of road: driverless vehicles and the end of the trucker
Even the trade website Logistics Management, also writing in March, put the headline Truckers prepare for era of driverless trucks – coming sooner rather than later on a story that didn’t really say that. It quoted a consultant to Las Vegas bookmakers (?!) as “predicting that 21 million autonomous cars will be sold within the next 15 years.” That’s cars, not heavy road hauling vehicles, those small, four-wheeled things that truckers must watch out for on the road.
As far as truck driving jobs go, the picture as of the spring of 2017 is rather contradictory. On the one hand, there is a shortage of drivers. Driving long-haul loads is not exactly a dream job – it takes drivers away from home and family and can be rather stressful with tight schedules to keep. It is also a 24/7 job within the various national, US state and European Union (EU) laws, rules and regulations on driver shifts, rest, etc. Look behind the cases of your driver being pulled over and fined (or worst, ending up in a ditch with a damaged or destroyed load) and it will probably have happened because the driver bent some of these rules to be on time.
In the US, the average age for drivers is 55 and rising. Young people are not flocking to get behind the wheel of a long-haul truck (or lorry, for you in the UK). So, putting a computer system in the driver’s seat makes increasing economic sense – eliminate human drivers if you can’t find enough of them. As the technology portal TechCrunch wrote last year after a “convoy” of several “driverless” trucks rolled across Europe to deliver its loads: “Shipping a full truckload from L.A. to New York costs around $4,500 today, with labor representing 75 percent of that cost. But those labor savings aren’t the only gains to be had from the adoption of driverless trucks,” pointing out that “Where drivers are restricted by law from driving more than 11 hours per day without taking an 8-hour break, a driverless truck can drive nearly 24 hours per day. That means the technology would effectively double the output of the U.S. transportation network at 25 percent of the cost.”
But wait, are we ready to send up to 60 tons of cargo (worth hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of dollars or euros) out on a 500 mile or kilometer trip with a microchip at the wheel? Probably not right now. Even last year’s widely reported “truck platooning” experiment had human drivers ready to take over. In the US, a “first”, the delivery of a load of beer by a “driverless” truck actually had a human at hand. “The company said a trained driver was inside the truck for the entire trip. But he only sat in front and drove the truck as it was entering and leaving the interstate highway. The rest of the time, he sat in a part of the truck used for relaxing and sleeping,” according to Voice of America news report.
One tech startup in the US is even working on a system for remote driving of trucks, much the way the US military flies drones halfway across the world with pilots sitting in a mainland US base. One driver, sitting in an office, could monitor and control several autonomous trucks.
What does this all mean? Drivers or “persons somehow responsible for maneuvering a truck or trucks” will not disappear, even if there are not enough of them under present conditions. Indeed, driving a truck remotely or monitoring a truck platoon or convoy from a control center in the lead truck may prove to be an attractive job for a tech-savvy younger person with computer game and multitasking skills.
One thing that will not change is the need for fuel (all electric long-haul vehicles is another future story). Indeed, the economics of fuel will shift as labor takes up less of the total cost package of running a haulage company. Fuel will take up a higher proportion, but at the same time, may be used more efficiently by driverless vehicles moving at uniform or optimized speed. However, it is used, someone will have to buy the fuel and choose whether to do it with a collection of cards (with all their vulnerabilities) or to use an alternative system.
At Instantic we are carefully following developments in the freight hauling business and making every effort to keep you, the manager or owner, in the driver’s seat of your fuel costs regardless of who is or is not behind the wheel of your vehicles.