Self-Driving Trucks Could Rewrite the Rules for Future Freight Transport

Self-driving truck, an innovation that will shape future logistics operations, is what major automotive companies are intently developing with the hope of materializing it as this could be the solution to a wide range of current problems, particularly the shortage of long-haul truck drivers.  Given the solution, logistics service providers could then markedly enhance their short-haul freight delivery system management and, in turn, directly respond to the consumers’ lifestyle at the time when e-commerce is growing at a rate of 200%

Self-driving trucks and trains are bound to become economically essential in the context of logistics operations as well as for logistics service providers, which means a change in the economic mode of cargo transport and shipment.  Because as the major technology companies are concentrating on the development of such logistics innovations as automated trucks and trains, concerned parties in the logistics industry circle are compelled to analyze the difference and competitiveness of both trucks and trains.  With the full materialization of these innovations, the shortage of truck drivers, particularly in the U.S., can be solved.  More importantly, this will considerably cut down on operating cost on the part of logistics service providers as the technology will help enhance the use of fuel oil in comparison with human-driven vehicles while also ensuring better road safety.  In this connection, it is found that research and development is more advanced in the case of automated trucks than trains as the former have to rely more on human labor.  As such, the automation system is definitely causing a change in transportation landscape.

Up to now, specialized automated trucking has been deployed as off-road vehicle operations in remote areas as well as in certain industries such as mining in Australia and Chile, in military camps and container terminals, while automated trucks have been used on the road on an experimental basis in the U.S. and Europe by Daimler’s Freightliner, Volvo and Peterbilt Motors.  Faced with similar problems just like driverless trucks on public roads, the trucks, particularly due to their sizes and weights, have greater impact on safety than do normal passenger cars.  Meanwhile, automated trains are more easily operated as they do not have to handle any unpredictable traffic and have their own clear-cut lanes.  They have been deployed in long-distance mining in North America since 1960 while underground trains in 48 cities worldwide are automated just like automated shuttle trains in service at many airport terminals.  Besides, Rio Tinto PLC recently launched its experimental freight rail services by driverless train, the world’s first ever, with 42 trains traveling a stretch of 1,000 miles in Western Australia.

The main strength of automated trucking lies in the solution of long-haul driver shortages.  Statistics show that such shortages in the U.S. and Europe can be traced to older population, low wage (truck drivers in the U.S. earn half as much as train drivers), stringent working hours and young employees’ unwillingness to work for extended periods of time away from home.  According to the American Trucking Association, the country is currently faced with a shortage of as many as 35,000 truck drivers, or 240,000 by 2023.  By the same token, more than 40% of truck drivers in Germany, or a total of 250,000, are retiring in the next ten years according to Wall Street Journal.

As it happens, truck drivers are required to take a minimum period of rest in compliance with the safety law, which means trucks have to remain stationary, quite a contrary to driverless trucks that can freely operate on a 24/7 basis.  In other words, the driver’s expense can be reduced by 60% while truck utilization can increase by approx. 30% and road accidents can decrease by 70%, thus causing insurance premiums to also decrease,particularly with the availability of driverless-truck-dedicated lanes.  Still, despite labor cost reduction and network augmentation associated with self-driving trains on the one hand and better asset utilization, service provision level and reliability associated with an increase in service frequency on the other, logistics services by driverless trucks are found to be more competitive than by train over the long haul as far as costs are concerned. Hence, a logistics market share difficult to be reclaimed by the railway system.

In comparison, a train driver’s way of life is no different from that of a truck driver.  As such, a shortage of train drivers is looming in the distance.  The automated driving unit system is capable of changing various supporting works into main operations with definite timetable, which is the way train drivers want, i.e. having definite work schedule and being able to work close to home.  Moreover, abundant IT systems in both the U.S. and Europe have been developed to support driverless trains, be they remote control system, onboard computers for speed and movement control or software to ensure balanced and suitable operations and fuel utilization.  Still, the main hitches to the automated rail system lie in the trip protection and the identification as well as the means to avoid obstacles along the route as such means are normally missing at intersections between railway and road thus requiring a real-time tracking system to ensure that no obstacles lie as the train passes as an abrupt train speed reduction can cause accident risk.  In the U.S., the Federal Railroad Administration has therefore joined forces with Google Inc. in defining crossroads or intersections between railway and road in Google Map so that its users can be warned if and when they approach them.

Challenges in the case of automated trucks are of a different nature from those in the case of automated trains as trucks operate on a more open roadway.  Thus, experts have come up with the recommendation to launch driverless-truck-dedicated lanes expected to partially help ease road traffic congestion, thereby lessening the potential accidents caused by human-driven trucks – an improvement not quite vividly realized until driverless trucking does materialize.

With the future introduction and presence of Internet Of Things (IoT) in all human activitiesthe technologies for automated trucks and trains will definitely replace the existing ones in the next three to five years.  Besides, regardless of the more complications in the development of automated trucks, problems in the logistics industry are expected to be solved in the long run.  In addition, despite the legal and labor force problems in the case of railway, the automated system is expected to ease operations.  For car and road users as well as pedestrians to be informed of the train’s location and warned through their cell app as a means to prevent all kinds of accidents will become nothing out of the ordinary while driverless vehicles will rely on technologies such as light detection and remote sensing to link up with the steering and brake systems and avoid obstacles. 

Furthermore, a potential rapid augmentation of automated train services could prove problematic for rail traffic management due to restricted routes while automated trucking is prompt to swiftly replace the rail freight market share.  The future transportation landscape in both cases is expected to become more evident along with the promulgation of related laws and regulations to enhance various operations as well as ensure more social safety in general.

Compile by BLOG.SCGLogistics
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