It’s official: the government has given the green light and committed to investing in new trials of self-driving lorries on UK roads. According to Sky News, the government is investing £8.1 million into the trials to develop semi-autonomous driving systems to roll out across all roads in the future. This comes as no surprise to the UK as we already have vehicles on the roads which operate with semi-autonomous driving systems, from cruise control and lane departure warning to active park assist. But as the government funds further developments, we could see them on our roads sooner than we think.
We’ve known for a little while now that trucks and lorries are most likely to be amongst the first autonomous vehicles to be driving on our roads, but with the government’s funding directly contributing to the development of autonomous platooning lorries, it becomes more of a reality. The technology will work by driving lorries closely behind one another, linked via electronic connections which communicate with GPS, radar and wi-fi. By reducing the gaps between the vehicles, it’s said to reduce air drag, cut fuel consumption and reduce emissions, potentially by 20%. But what does an autonomous fleet of lorries mean for UK truck and lorry drivers?
Specialists in long term van hire, Northgate, investigate if self-driving vehicles signal a major loss of jobs, as the driver is essentially taken away from the process.
If autonomous technology succeeds, it aims to remove the need for a human behind the wheel – so, it comes as no surprise that those who drive for a living have concerns about the safety of their career. In the US alone, it is predicted that there could be up to 25,000 jobs lost a month, according to Goldman Sachs. With truck driving one of the most common occupations in the US, that figure could turn into over 300,000 job losses per year. In the UK, low-end estimates suggest that over 1.7 million truckers could also be replaced by self-driving counterparts – which could rise to as high of 3 million, suggesting many could rid their manual drivers of their job.
Some companies are well on their way to succeeding with autonomous technology. Einride have already developed their own self-driving truck that will be ready for 2020, and it does not have space for the human driver or even passengers. The all-electric T-Pod truck measures approximately seven metres, can carry up to 20 tonnes in weight of freight and is fully autonomous. The vehicle is capable of self-drive on motorways and highways, and can be controlled remotely at a driving station for urban areas. The first fleet is estimated to be active by 2020, in the cities of Gothenburg and Helsingborg in Sweden – and they aren’t the only manufacturer to show keen interest in developing electric and autonomous commercial vehicles, with Mercedes revealing a glimpse of their 2025 concept and Tesla indicating their interest.
But it isn’t all bad news, as industry professionals are hopeful that the technology will actually create new opportunities and jobs, just like automobiles created millions of jobs for people – although these opportunities may be different to those that are available now. The UK aims to be at the forefront of development of autonomous alternatives and predict that acting as a world leader in the sector will boost the UK’s economy. The SMMT valued autonomous cars and the systems that connect them to the internet as being worth £51 billion a year to the UK economy by 2030. Success in the field could also see around 320,000 jobs created.
The semi-autonomous platooning lorry convoys will more than likely still require a lead driver to navigate the platoon. The lead driver is likely to need to navigate the first lorry with the other follow suit – and of course, there are likely to be jobs created to build new road infrastructure required for autonomous vehicles.
Despite the prospect of a potential temporary job loss, autonomous vehicles are likely to bring many benefits. Autonomous technology will also improve road safety and reduce harmful emissions too. In the US alone, there are over 350,000 road accidents a year involving trucks, which the majority of those are traced to human error. Similarly, with the UK, there were over 1,810 incidents in 216 where someone was killed or fatally injured in a road traffic accident. Autonomous vehicles eliminate human error on the roads to make them a safer place.