20 December 2019

Will the drivers of the future be human?

Self-driving vehicles and bulk logistics  

We’ve discussed the impact of technology on the bulk logistics sector many times in these articles, from what’s already possible in terms of digital bulk logistics optimisation, to the next wave of digital advancements on the horizon. Beyond these industry developments though, wider-reaching technological progress has the potential to utterly transform the bulk logistics sector we know today. One of these innovations is the self-driving (or autonomous) vehicle.

As it stands, testing of self-driving logistics vehicles has taken place away from public spaces, with a view to progressing to main roads and motorways once the technology is ready. Of course, there are vital steps to take first, such as government regulation and social acceptance, as DHL say in their exploration into self-driving vehicles. Here we explore two of the prospective uses of self-driving vehicles within the bulk logistics industry, and their potential implications.

Autonomous platooning

Bulk logistics companies are already making use of platooning – the act of driving in close convoy so as to boost fuel efficient through air flow that forms between the vehicles. In its current form, with human drivers behind the wheel of each vehicle, the close proximity of platooning convoys raises safety concerns, even with wireless safety systems in place that automatically slow each vehicle if the one in front brakes.

However, platooning could take on a new guise through self-driving vehicles; with a human driver piloting the lead vehicle and setting the pace, while the rest of the convoy consists of autonomous HGVs.  It’s a technique Scania have already experimented with – in 2016, a lead driver directed a convoy ofself-driving vehicles from Sweden to the Netherlands.    

Assisted motorway driving  

This is another way in which self-driving vehicles could find a niche in the bulk logistics industry. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, a third of fatal motorway accidents involved at least one HGV in 2016, so could self-driving vehicles help to bring stats like these down? 

While human drivers would still be required to perform tasks such as merging into traffic, leaving the motorway and overtaking, an assisted motorway driving system could ensure an HGV stays in lane automatically, maintains a safe distance from the vehicle in front and never exceeds legal speed limits. A driver would still need to be ready to take manual control at all times though, potentially at short notice.

How could self-driving vehicles impact the bulk logistics sector?

There’s no denying that self-driving vehicles would completely overhaul bulk logistics as we know it. It seems unavoidable that autonomous driving would come with driver job losses, and extensive retraining for those who remain in the profession. Having said that, the amount of monitoring and assistance the vehicles need will likely create jobs too. Roadside businesses, such as service stations and restaurants, would also likely suffer. 

On the upside, self-driving vehicles offer many benefits to bulk logistics firms, not least significant savings on operational expenses and productivity; an autonomous HGV doesn’t need to take a break or book time off. There would be a positive boost to sustainability too, with automated driving resulting in optimal fuel consumption. Plus, as we mentioned above, self-driving vehicles should be considerably safer, once the technology is perfected.

Whatever the future brings, bulk logistics firms should ensure they are capitalising on the immense value of digitisation and technology right now. At Touchstar, our digital optimisation systems are tailored specifically for the bulk logistics industry, designed to support and streamline every aspect of operational performance. To find out more, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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