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Autonomous driving as a path to the future of logistics?

Can technology compensate for the shortage of skilled workers?

Euphoria and scepticism: like almost every major innovation, autonomous driving moves between these two poles. Proponents and opponents can each give well-founded reasons for their positions. A factual debate also includes the fact that logistics is likely to become the most important application of autonomous driving. Especially because this is a key to refinancing the enormously expensive research.

Autonomous driving is considered the future of road transport. Trucks that drive mostly autonomously and are controlled by the system are a development goal that appeals to many companies in logistics. The advantages of the technology seem too clear. Because autonomous trucks can:

  • compensate for the shortage of skilled workers
  • drive around the clock
  • be used more cheaply

But these advantages are offset by unanswered questions that must be clarified before the technology can be used in road traffic across the board. These include liability issues as well as the safety of the systems and the technology of networking. One of the challenges is that autonomous commercial vehicles must first gain the trust of Germans. This is because various studies show that there is still widespread scepticism about automation. Around two thirds express reservations.


What is autonomous driving?

In order to be able to consider the advantages and disadvantages of a new mobility, it is important to first clarify the framework conditions: How far has the automation of vehicles progressed? And how independently can they move in traffic? Are they already suitable for use on public roads? In order to objectify this discussion, a division of development into different sub-areas has become established, according to which cars and trucks are classified.

The following levels apply:

(0) The driver drives himself

(1) There is driving assistance

(2) Partial automation (when parking, keeping in lane or braking)

(3) Conditional automation (when executing the indicator and changing lanes)

(4) High automation (the guidance of the vehicle is largely taken over by the system)

(5) Full automation (a system or programme controls the vehicle independently)

The categorisation into these areas shows on the one hand that research into autonomous trucks has produced a number of valuable assistance systems in addition to the long-term goal of complete autonomy, such as emergency brake assist, distance cruise control with stop-and-go function, traffic jam assist, lane departure warning and lane feedback assist. However, it also reveals that important legal questions still need to be answered before fully automated trucks can be used in road traffic. This is because, according to current legal standards, the responsible party is determined in the event of traffic accidents in order to clarify the question of liability. To what extent this can also be implemented for system- or program-controlled vehicles and to whom the responsibility for a technological development is attributed is not yet foreseeable. Not to mention ethical issues that may arise in the programming of the systems: Who do the systems prefer to protect when there will inevitably be a personal injury accident - children or the elderly? And how do they prioritise when their driving manoeuvres can have varying degrees of severity, from minor injuries to certain death?


What advantages are associated with autonomous driving for logistics?

Anyone who asks themselves the big safety questions surrounding driverless trucks quickly notices, away from the borderline cases, that they have the potential to increase road safety. Because the thought of a future with autonomous vehicles means at the same time that the effects of human weaknesses on traffic will decline: Misjudgements, wrong perception, emotions or bad form on the day and overtiredness. Once developed to operational maturity, the technology will always show consistently high performance. A characteristic that makes autonomous driving enormously interesting, especially for logistics. Because it offers enormous efficiency potential for road freight transport. Today's framework conditions only allow vehicles to be used for around one third of the time of day, especially in long-distance transport. After all, there is usually one driver on the road alone who has to adhere to the applicable driving and rest times. Autonomous vehicles, on the other hand, have the potential to stay on the road around the clock and to carry out transports even at times when there is little traffic. This gives them the opportunity to significantly optimise their processes along the value chain by drastically extending the use of the vehicles. Logistics service providers also benefit enormously from fully networked trucks, whose deployment they can control more easily because they receive comprehensive information from them.


How does autonomous driving affect the job of truck drivers?

One important reason for working intensively on autonomous vehicles is the increasing shortage of skilled workers. Because there is a shortage of truck drivers in Germany and Europe. Their working conditions, with high time pressure and at the same time increasingly dense road traffic, have become more and more of a burden on the profession as a whole. As a result, far fewer young people are learning the profession of truck driver than older colleagues retire each year. In North America, the driver shortage has already become an impediment to growth for the entire economy. Nevertheless, this deficit can at best be compensated for in the long term by autonomous trucks. It is not yet clear whether or by when autonomous trucks will be able to cope with the complexity of traffic in densely populated urban areas. In addition, the technology will entail a high initial investment for the deploying companies - which, according to estimates, will be offset by around 40 percent lower operating costs. According to forecasts, up to ten percent of road transport could be carried out by autonomous trucks by 2030. On the way to this medium-term scenario, changes are likely to occur that will also shift the job profile of the truck driver. This is because successful tests prove that the use of fully autonomous trucks in sparsely populated areas and on motorways is likely to succeed first. This creates the possibility, for example, of completing long-distance transports or the main runs in system transports from warehouse to warehouse with the automated vehicles. The focus for human drivers would thus shift to local transport in inner cities and conurbations. Depending on the autonomy level of future trucks, however, they could also become onboard managers who take over other tasks during a large part of the journey. And even the use of so-called remote drivers is conceivable, who can monitor several vehicles simultaneously in critical traffic situations from a control room and control them if necessary.


Autonomous driving will come - but when and how?

E-mobility and freight transport of the future face enormous challenges that require the automation of transports to secure the value chain. The term autonomous driving describes the most important solution strategy for road transport: the use of technology to automate it. The speed at which the technological development for this will be completed can only be roughly estimated at the moment. It is just as vague to predict what legal framework the states worldwide will create for the use of autonomous trucks. Only one thing remains absolutely clear at present: the profession of truck driver continues to offer a secure future.

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