Driverless Lorries and the future of logistics


Vehicle technology is evolving at breakneck speed. We’re already seeing a number of highend features become more and more standard with every purchase, such as voice-activated commands and park assisting sensors. The next big step will be the introduction of fully autonomous driverless vehicles, and the implications for the logistics industry are profound. Driverless technology has the potential to completely transform how retail companies manage and move their stock, but how plausible is it? What are the potential pitfalls of implementing automated vehicles on a large scale?

So far, all vehicles with autonomous elements must have a human driver in complete control of the vehicle. This kind of technology hasn’t yet reached a point where humans are willing to entrust their lives, and the lives of their families, to a machine. These are justified concerns, and while it is true that the technology has not yet advanced to the point where a human driver is no longer required, we aren’t far off. In theory, driverless vehicles should drastically improve road safety by removing the potential for human error. As drivers, we are prone to make errors of judgement or become distracted. Assuming the technology was sound in the first place, an automated system would suffer none of these flaws.

Autonomous Lorries: a reality?

Cars are not the only vehicle type to receive ‘driverless’ attention. There have recently been successful trials of semi-autonomous trucks. According to one source, the government is planning to allow for the trial of such lorries on British roads, with the M6 in Cumbria a likely candidate owing to its relative lack of traffic and its widely-spaced junctions. It should be stated at the outset that these lorries are not completely automatic – there is a driver at the helm. What makes these lorries autonomous is that they utilise a combination of onboard systems, such as cameras and radar, to scan the immediate surroundings and effectively plot a safe course.

This may sound like standard fare, but what makes these trucks interesting from a logistics point of view is the potential of this technology to create what the industry is calling a ‘platoon’. This is where a convoy of similarly outfitted lorries travel in a much tighter formation than would ordinarily be possible. Because the systems in the platoon are linked, the brakes and accelerator can be applied simultaneously in all the participating vehicles thereby eliminating the potential of a crash. Travelling closer together means that the lorries benefit from the slipstream of the one ahead, thereby reducing wind resistance and, consequently, fuel consumption. The savings could be significant. Tests by Scania have shown that platoons can reduce fuel consumption by up to 12%. This equates to some 4,000 litres of fuel saved per vehicle annually. For context, this fuel saved would carry a typical family car some 35,000 miles. Evidently, the potential of this technology for logistics companies is enormous.

To be sure, lorries in platoon still require humans to oversee the operation, but it is hoped that this is the first step on the road to fully autonomous haulage vehicles. Aside from the obvious savings in fuel consumption, independent vehicles would be able to travel at night when human drivers would require sleep. Not only would this increase company profits (as they would be able to complete more journeys), it has a knock-on benefit for other motorists in that there would be potentially fewer haulage vehicles on the road during the day. This means less congestion, less fuel spent idling in traffic jams, and less driver angst.

Is driverless worth it for retailers?

These automated platoons sound like a perfect solution for retail firms looking to ship lots of stock. However, as with any technology, there is no guarantee of it working 100% of the time, so retail firms may be cautious and slow on the uptake. This is to be expected. What retail firms should bear in mind is the sheer attention and investment autonomous vehicle technology is getting from huge players in the industry. The technology required to platoon effectively involves some impressive electronics, all of which need to be properly tested and maintained. The self-driving truck deployed by Uber last year boasted $30,000 of kit, and the city of Ontario has recently invested $3 million into research in the field. So while there is some understandable caution around the implementation of automated systems, retailers can at least rest safe in the knowledge that the hard work and testing of them will be vigorous and comprehensive. Yet the concerns of retailers won’t stop there, however. Indeed, it’s easy to picture a scenario whereby a company is forced to pay a ransom to have their fleet liberated from hackers. The cost and threat of cybercrime is already becoming a phenomenon, and this is something retailers will be keeping a close eye on.

An automated fleet may save fuel, operate more efficiently and be able to work long hours throughout the night, but the real question for retailers is whether these advantages are truly worth it. Something the industry at large will have to answer is what will happen to those drivers who will inevitably lose their jobs as automation becomes commonplace?