Last reviewed 15 June 2016

Tony Francis summarises developments on autonomously driven HGVs, along with their gradual application in the logistics industry.

Driver shortage problem

Nearly 300,000 are employed as HGV drivers in the UK and demand for such staff continues to grow. In a recent campaign, the Road Haulage Association (RHA) raised concerns that there are some 45,000 vacancies for qualified HGV drivers (see the RHA website).

Over half of the present workforce is aged over 50 and just 2% are under 25. A career in lorry driving is not popular among young people as it appears as a poor relation, in terms of pay and working conditions, compared with many other career opportunities. This is despite campaigns being pursued by both the RHA and the Freight Transport Association, attempting to reverse, or at least slow down, this situation.

Technology to the rescue?

The basic ability to operate a road vehicle without a driver already exists. Manufacturers, along with information technology (IT) specialists such as Google and Apple, are rapidly achieving mature products that can undertake the complete driving function. The UK Government revised its consultation paper in May 2016 on proposals to establish a national testing centre, to demonstrate and deploy autonomous vehicle technologies (see the GOV.UK website).

Developing the skills to design and maintain such systems along with, for example, ensuring security against cyberattacks, are all part of this initiative. Although earlier work has concentrated on private cars, the application to commercial vehicles and to HGVs in particular is making firm progress.

Experiments in mainland Europe and elsewhere allow lorries, for example, which start from a variety of locations to come together and operate as a platoon, in close proximity, to the final destination. Vehicles are connected by wireless to the lead lorry which determines the route, speed, braking and acceleration of this convoy. Systems identify markings on the highway, along with potential obstacles, with camera and radar. Drivers currently remain in all the vehicles for safety reasons although, in theory, there is no need for this, other than possibly one in the lead lorry. It is expected that trials will extend to the UK (possibly on a section of the M6) as part of Government’s objective to see the country “lead the way” with such technology.

The benefits are seen primarily in improving road safety and efficient use of the highway network, through vehicles operating closer together and moving at constant speeds. Importantly, planned and automated driving programs should offer optimum fuel efficiency, leading to noticeable cost savings. Government concentrates on resourcing and encouraging the refinement of technical issues but there exists a number of operational matters requiring further work and resolution.

Problems arising from this new technology

Motoring organisations have pointed out that manoeuvring around a long convoy of linked lorries may present problems for other road users joining and leaving motorways, especially where junctions occur at frequent intervals, as on the British network. There may well be a need to plan and provide assembly and dispersal points for these “road trains”, along with careful timetable planning to ensure vehicles can be brought together punctually, without delaying the whole journey. Freight Distribution Centres are often managed on the basis that deliveries are received at regular intervals and may not be able to absorb the concurrent arrival of a number of lorries that had formed all or part of these platoons.

For an indeterminable period of time, drivers are still likely to be required in all lorries, to take over control in an emergency; a likelihood that may only arise occasionally. Another problem arises here in that — after long periods of inertia — there is no guarantee that an individual, however well trained, will remain constantly in a high state of alert.

A way forward

Manufacturers and governments are taking forward the research required to mature driverless technology, hopefully giving all aspects equal attention in order to benefit the logistics and road haulage industries and importantly its customers. Public acceptance of driverless HGVs may be some time away. Harmonised international regulations are also required, allowing driverless lorries to be deployed effectively on a wide scale, justifying the investment involved.

Involvement of logistical and haulage practitioners is essential in these ongoing initiatives but a chance to increase driver recruitment also exists if drivers’ duties change in light of technological advances.

Already modern technological devices are standard on most vehicles, such as satellite navigation, route planning, cruise control, engine and fuel monitoring information and close proximity warning devices. These are likely to develop, further reshaping the driver’s duties to that of the “vehicle manager”. The eventual incorporation of a driverless feature is highly likely, just as an automatic pilot is fitted to an airliner.

In particular, this might focus on making the job of an HGV driver progressively appealing to the fully IT aware younger generation. New drivers may need to be increasingly chosen on grounds of not just having the capability of manually driving an HGV. They should have the ability, and in particular, enthusiasm to manage throughout their working lives the complexities of vehicles having IT specifications, both those known and others possibly yet to emerge.