Autonomous trucks – What do drivers do?

The next ten years will radically change freight transport by road. Where they still exist, drivers will take on entirely new roles.

The transportation of the future is intelligent, networked and automated. In the public debate, the use of autonomous commercial vehicles is not discussed as much as the topic of automated passenger cars. Probably because it affects most people only indirectly. The development in this area is progressing rapidly. Driverless trucks could be rolling along the roads much sooner than expected. Compared to traffic in urban areas, the challenges for automating transportation on highways are less complex. At the same time, the business advantage of autonomous transports is enormous. In the rather low-margin logistics industry, this is a decisive argument. It is therefore not surprising that all established manufacturers, major logistics service providers and numerous start-ups are pushing the issue of autonomous trucks.

They are all working flat out to automate their Vehicles. Where the journey is headed is shown by pilot projects such as the test operation of the MAN Platooning Technology. On the A9 between Nuremberg and Munich, since 2018 self-driving trucks on the road for Schenker, the first practical application networked truck convoys in Germany. Two trucks with trailers drive in the Distance of 15 meters along the A9. The front truck is still being driven by a driver steers, the rear one is controlled by a computer. Volvo Trucks also tests autonomous trucks. The Volvo Vera tractor unit is an autonomous electric vehicle that is designed for common containers and trailers and is available with significantly lower emissions and low noise levels. It was installed on the presented at last year’s IAA and no longer even has a Driver’s cab. It is controlled and monitored by a control center.

The next ten years will see a gradual transition from driver assistance systems (Levels 1 to 2) to highly automated Driving (Level 4) show. Experts anticipate a broader introduction of Level 4 trucks around the year 2025. By 2030, completely autonomous driving trucks on the roads (level 5). The decisive factors here are not so much technological hurdles, but the legal situation. This leads to uncertainties in forecasting when driverless trucks will be used as standard. Still the law stipulates that a driver must at least be on board.

Professional driver – a job with a secure future?

The increasing automation of trucks raises an important question: How future-proof is the driving profession? The advantages of autonomously driving trucks are repeatedly emphasized. The operating times of the vehicles can be increased. Rest and idle times are eliminated. A continuous flow of goods, higher delivery accuracy are possible. The higher efficiency promises radically lower operating costs. It is estimated that the digitization of logistics and autonomous trucks will lead to cost savings of 25 to 40 percent per kilometer. To state it clearly: Most of these savings will be achieved by reducing personnel. How will the requirements profile and the specific activities of the truck driver change if he or she, unoccupied, is only used as the very last safety instance (Level 4) or not at all (level 5) is needed? Talking about relieving the driver during monotonous highway trips and longer rest periods, etc., partially obscures the fact that the driver is being challenged less and less and thus an entire job description is losing its appeal. Potential young drivers are already likely to ask themselves whether training as a professional driver is still worthwhile.

Driver shortage vs. Automation

A large percentage of professional drivers will retire in the coming years. The industry already has a shortage of around 45,000 drivers, and this number is expected to more than quadruple in the next ten years. Discussions about the future security of the driving profession are likely to lead to uncertainty among young drivers and even exacerbate the driver shortage. Against this background, automation could be an effective tool for counteracting the driver shortage. However, it can be assumed that the driver shortage and rationalization effects due to automation will overlap at a point in time X, and with a broad introduction of Level 5 vehicles, job losses are imminent or drivers will have to take on other, possibly completely new tasks. But which ones could they be? Possible answers are offered by these three conceivable scenarios for the year 2029, each with different requirement profiles. The scenarios are not so much an ‘either-or’ as a ‘both-and’. They can be intertwined in parallel or in chronological sequence.

1. On-board manager

Changes the law does not we must continue to be a driver on board in case of emergency intervene and take over the vehicle. In fact, the driver but almost 100 percent of his time with other tasks such as communication with customers, data maintenance (digital shipping documents, logs, etc.), the Monitoring the condition of the cargo and the maintenance of the vehicle spend. The control of 3D printing processes on board is also included in its Jurisdiction. A lower stress level and a more versatile job profile will increase the attractiveness of the profession.

2. Remote driver

In the event of greater liberalization, we will entire logistics can be automated. Autonomous trucks then do not need a Driver more on board. However, they must be monitored remotely. The Remote Driver is Control ten or more trucks from a remote monitoring center, and benefit from a significantly improved work-life balance, as overtime is and he works close to home. This makes the profession also gain in attractiveness for generations Y and Z.

3. Short driver

Due to the further progress Globalization and booming Internet trade will further increase the transport of goods. rise sharply. While the transport of goods on long-distance routes is completely will be automated, the need for drivers in inner-city traffic will increase. area (last mile) and between production and transshipment centers and the major logistics hubs may continue to grow strongly, as the law here is increasingly nor a driver might be prescribed or other process requirements make a driver necessary. Due to the locally limited area of application and increasing wages, the profession will become more attractive. Drivers here become more involved in a service role come, as they will often be the only face that customers from internet retailers will see…

To varying extents, all scenarios assume a realignment of the driving profession. As in all industries, the Digitalization and automation Qualifications according to requirements and jobs partly in new professions that are not even imaginable today. are shifting. The longer the time horizon that is considered, the more more radical is to think of this transformation.

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► KEYNOTES by Pero Mićić for your employees and customers

Have a bright future!