Autonomous trucks, meaning they are driverless, on major roads where they co-exist with ‘traditional’ vehicles: even five years ago, this was pure fantasy and did not seem likely to happen in the short or even medium term. And yet it is currently very nearly a reality. And it was in 2014 that this reality really started to take shape. In that year, at a time when there was already much talk about autonomous cars (the Next Two prototype by Renault Zoe, Project Sartre by Volvo and Google Car, among others), Mercedes-Benz struck a major blow with its Future Truck 2025. This was a semi-autonomous prototype: it allowed the driver to go to automatic pilot, and at that time it could go up to 85 kph thanks to a 3D camera, a GPS and radar sensors.
As the first questions were starting to be asked, in the same year the possibility was being raised of having trucks drive in convoys, thus allowing, among other things, for considerable fuel savings. It was only a few months later, in the spring of 2015, that Daimler, the mother company of Mercedes-Benz, showed off its Freightliner on the roads: those roads were in Nevada, in the United States, the first country to authorise such tests. The same manufacturer then pursued its tests in Europe, this time by driving across a part of Germany in October of the same year.
Tesla adds electric technology to the innovations for autonomous trucks
The first convoys of these semi-autonomous trucks appeared in 2016: six convoys started out in Germany, Belgium and Sweden before joining up in Rotterdam. Naturally, Daimler was involved, as were DAF, Man, Iveco, Scania and Volvo, with all of them having progressed with their own technologies. At the same time, countries began to organise themselves to anticipate the arrival of these vehicles, which is inevitable in the short term: Great Britain, for example, began to invest in connected roads and would not be long in conducting its own tests. In 2017, finally, there seems to be a clear trend and this time it is Tesla taking the lead: its vehicle will not only be autonomous, but will also be capable of travelling in convoys and is fully electric!
Taken one by one, there is nothing new about these technologies. The idea of an electric truck, for example, is far from being new. Even the idea of wanting to offer a truck that is both electric and autonomous is not, in itself, an innovation, the Swedish start-up T-Pod having announced its intention of doing the same thing at the start of the summer. On the other hand, the combination of the three: autonomous, electric, and in convoy, is clearly something new. All the more so that Tesla, which already sells autonomous and electric cars, is ready: their prototypes are expected to be tested by end August in Nevada, and the vehicles will be presented in the autumn. At the same time, in addition to the ‘traditional’ manufacturers already mentioned, other players have entered the ring of autonomous trucks: the Chinese company TuSimple, the Google subsidiary Waymo, Embark, Starsky Robotics, and Uber are among them.
INFOGRAPHIC: “Autonomous trucks: 4 years of technological advances”:
A not inconsiderable human price to pay for haulage employees
But all these innovations might well come at a price, particularly in human terms. The audit firm PwC estimated in 2016 that convoys of semi-autonomous trucks would help to save 5% of transport costs by 2020, thanks mainly to a reduction in fuel consumption in excess of 10%. But the revolution of fully autonomous trucks, expected some time before 2030, would result in savings of… 30%! And this will be mainly due to reductions in drivers’ jobs, which represent 40% of costs. This begs some fundamental questions about the human future of an entire profession.
Meeting in Leipzig in June, the International Transport Forum (ITF), an intergovernmental organisation that operates under the aegis of the OECD, even went so far as to put an (impressive) figure on it: up to 4.4 million truck drivers’ jobs could disappear in Europe and the United States by 2030. Equivalent to 70% of the workforce. “By preparing now for the harmful impact that these job losses might have in human terms, we may be able to mitigate the risks if the transition is rapid”, reassures José Viegas, General Secretary of the Forum. It is time, right now, to turn this commitment into concrete action. For most players in this sector now have their feet firmly on the accelerator and autonomous trucks will be with us tomorrow; we can be sure that the only barriers still holding them back, namely legislative, will soon be broken down…