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Self-Driving Lorries: Could Public Fear Help Our Industry?

Automated, self-driving lorries have been a contentious topic which have grown from rumour to near-reality in recent years. We’ve voiced our concerns about the introduction of semi-autonomous vehicles when the planned ‘platooning’ technique was announced last year – from the decrease in road safety to the threats to employment.

But it seems that it is not just those in the road logistics and professional industries who are troubled by the looming threat of autonomous HGVs: Logistics Manager revealed the results of a survey which found that self-driving lorries were the second most frightening technological advancement, coming closely behind conscious machines.

The fact that self-driving HGVs are only slightly bested in the ‘fear factor’ by, essentially, the concept of robots which can think for themselves outside of human control, is telling.

When delving deeper into the 2,000 respondents’ worries, the reason ‘I don’t trust that they’ll be reliable and as quick to react as a human would’ was a top response, with an incredible 62% sharing this fear. This was a concern raised in our post last year, and the fact that it’s shared by the public only strengthens this.

Interestingly, when probed about their top concern, the respondents also cited that the possibility of machines replacing human workers was worrisome. Given that the study was asking the general public rather than a group of professional logistics workers, it’s understandable that autonomous lorries don’t evoke the same fears of job replacement for our nation’s professional drivers – but the fact that it is still a concern in general shows that we are not happy with the morality of people being replaced by machines.

The less trust the public has in the new technologies behind driverless HGVs, the more barriers the Government will face to implement them on our roads. As well as supporting our dedicated professional drivers, this public fear could also help to boost our industry’s image. The discrepancy between the public’s feelings towards the haulage sector and the reality of their reliance and the high standards of safety has been a topic which we’ve explored previously.

But when forced to think about the impacts of autonomous lorries on our roads, society must reflect on the fact that current drivers are, in fact, an incredibly safe and reliable workforce. Quick reaction times, practical human intelligence and expert training makes our professional drivers the dependable, reliable and indispensable part of the logistics chain.

Let’s hope that the future will bring even more awareness and recognition for our nation’s dedicated professional drivers!

Digital Driving

It can often be difficult to comprehend the level at which digitalisation infiltrates our daily life; it has become so commonplace that it can be difficult to remember, or for the young amongst us, to imagine a world without electronics, apps or social media. Whilst the transport and warehousing industry is largely built upon electronic and digital foundations, it was inevitable that it would one day follow suit in embracing the rise of digitalisation beyond factory walls. In recent years, vehicles have become increasingly digitalised, with self-park modes, in-car phones and paper tax discs transitioning to an online service only. Our roads have also adapted with smart motorways and lanes that have the capability to charge electric cars as they drive. Now, there are further proposals still; digital driving licenses are being considered, new virtual reality safety apps are being launched and of course, the introduction of autonomous vehicles looms.

The necessity and productivity of each upcoming proposal, in our opinion, varies. Within this piece we shall assess how the sector will be affected by the digitalisations on our horizon, namely the digitalised driving licence, implementation of autonomous vehicles onto British roads and lastly, the launch of the virtual reality app.

Although perhaps only a minor change to the industry, last year saw the first trial of digital driving licenses, allowing motorists to carry their licence with them without having a physical copy to hand. The intention is to offer drivers numerous benefits that do not otherwise exist; from reducing fraud and theft to allowing greater ease in renewing almost-expired licenses. It’s practicality however should be drawn to question with security breaches a potential risk; would drivers be protected in the case of mobile theft? Equally, in the unfortunate event of an accident, will it be more difficult to identify drivers? Here at Barnes, we feel that this concern is particularly pressing; as mobile phones are becoming increasingly reliant on fingerprint technology to unlock the device, if a physical license was not at the scene, would it possible to identify the driver if they were unconscious? To move away from morbidity, we believe that with these points taken into consideration then the digitalised licence could become a useful addition to the digital driving portfolio. This, however, is merely a small-scale change to the world of digitalisation within the driving industry, with one greatly significant change fast approaching; autonomous vehicles.

Ambiguously set to hit our roads ‘later this year’, it seems that driverless vehicles are on the horizon . In countries such as Belgium, tests have already begun, whilst in the US the trials are now a regularity, with some brands advertising public use of their driverless cars. However, following recent reports of a pedestrian death caused by autonomous vehicles, the safety of the autonomous vehicles must be called into question. Although it was the first-known incident of its kind, it was far from the first autonomous vehicle accident; a similar outcome evolved with a Tesla model after it failed to recognise the hazard as it occurred, and so the “the brake was not applied”. It seems that these accidents are becoming a commonality amongst driverless vehicles, and we fear that these accidents would only be accentuated if they were to involve larger vehicles.

The details surrounding the trials and potential launch of autonomous HGVs it seems are less public and are being kept out of the limelight. Yet discussions are underway with officials – this much the public do know. Having spoken in detail about this topic before, we ask once again; are autonomous HGVs really the safest addition to our roads? Here at Barnes, we urge the Government to reconsider their plans; not only would driverless HGVs affect the livelihood of millions of drivers, but as before, we want to reiterate that the skills humans, particularly in cases of sudden, uncontrollable variables, cannot be undermined. For all the positives that come from the digitalisation of various transport systems, we, and others in the industry alike, fear that with driverless vehicles and HGVs, the cons significantly outweigh the pros.

To finish on a positive note, we wanted to reflect on the newly launched app from Highways England that aims to improve driver awareness of blind spots. The smartphone app, used in conjunction with cardboard goggles, aims to accurately recreate a driving environment where the acknowledgement of blind spots are vital, such as, joining a motorway, overtaking and tailgating. Whilst our employees are qualified to the highest standards, we believe that all drivers should have the option of improving their driving skills further and that there is no such thing as too much practice! If you have tried out the app, let us know your thoughts on it using our Twitter feed.

As the digital world continues to evolve, we expect that further changes will be made to the transport industry. Whilst some could be considered pivotal, be this in a positive or negative manner as demonstrated with the new VR app in comparison to driverless vehicles, others are only minor changes. Currently, it seems that most digitalisation movements are simply ‘in discussion’, but, if the safety of all road users are completely considered and used to motivate and shape future necessary additions to the industry, we believe that the transport industry as a whole can benefit.

Are We Still in the Driver’s Seat when it comes to Autonomous Vehicles?

When it comes to the subject of self-driving vehicles, the conversation is often a heated one. Regular debates are held between those who work in the transport sector, discussing whether autonomous vehicles will have a positive or negative impact upon the logistics industry; a conversation which is to be continued within the following paragraphs.

 

Whilst self-driving cars are a somewhat common news piece, self-driving trucks have not been featured as frequently. However, with the Government announcing this week the trial of semi-autonomous lorries, and a date for these plans now announced, our news feeds have been inundated with the details surrounding such an operation, and so, at Barnes Logistics, we felt the need to delve further into this topic.

 

Previously, and arguably unsurprisingly, plans to test autonomous HGVs had been suspended after a lack of commitment from many major European manufacturers. Their concern was not without valid cause; is platooning and synchronised braking really the safest addition to our roads? But, despite the initial reluctance from manufacturers, the Government has since revealed plans to trial the feasibility of autonomous HGVs on Britain’s roads.

 

By 2025, sales of driverless cars are anticipated to hit record highs; it is predicted that global sales will exceed 10m. With such high expectations of self-driving cars, it is interesting to consider whether autonomous trucks will boast a similar success. At Barnes Logistics, we have been scrutinising the issues which surround driverless vehicles, and how such potential complications may effect the logistics industry, presenting a vital question: are they a help or a hindrance?

 

Before assuming the overall safety of these vehicles however, there are many significant factors to take into consideration. This includes how the environment may be affected, (which in its own right is a topic of concern and has been discussed at length in our recent blog on vehicles and pollution), whilst other factors that will undoubtedly effect the success of driverless trucks include weather conditions and unforeseeable, and unpreventable road events, such as sudden accidents.

 

Firstly, we explore how driverless trucks would operate. The Government proposes to implement a ‘platooning’ technique, whereby the trucks drive in groups, just 4 metres apart from one another, with synchronised breaking and steering. Then, as a lorry needs to exit the motorway, a driver will take over control again, whilst the remaining HGVs continue to synchronise. It is thought to be a ‘state-of-the-art’ system, driven by smart technology. It is considered to improve road safety through reducing driving reaction time to zero seconds, providing an immediate reaction to potential trouble on the road. The Government also reports that the system is an inexpensive alternative to current HGVs, as the constant speed at which the trucks drive lowers fuel consumption and C02 emissions.

 

However, despite the apparent advantages, in cost reduction and fuel efficiency, there are many potential problems that driverless trucks could cause the logistics industry. The Financial Times has raised a series of issues which may prove problematic. Of upmost importance is the potential for accidents: whilst road safety is considered to be improved through the use of quicker reaction times, it should be noted that often, accidents can be prevented through simple communication between vehicles and pedestrians. Decisions at cross roads are often made through one driver letting another pull out first, and pedestrians are able to cross roads after being waved across by drivers. Human interaction on the road is a complex system which no computer can replicate.

 

Additionally, there is the safety risk that HGV platoons pose to other road users without taking any HGV accidents into consideration. The driverless technology will allow the lorries to travel far closer together – and although this will increase efficiency due to lower air resistance, it also means that road signs may be blocked from view for car drivers. Road-side warnings advise of upcoming traffic jams, accidents and adverse weather conditions – if car drivers cannot see these due to being blocked by a small convoy of lorries, the end results could be disastrous.

 

Finally, one of the most significant potential problems for the sector, is of course, the issue of employment. The logistics industry provides vital jobs for thousands looking for an occupation with flexibility and freedom. Although each HGV in a platoon will have a driver at the wheel ready to take over, will the idea of simply sitting behind semi-autonomous vehicles deter potential new young drivers from the industry? In a sector which is attempting to encourage more interest from the next generation into the driving occupation, this news does not bode well.

 

Overall, it is difficult to predict how successfully driverless trucks will integrate into logistics. For all the benefits they offer, we believe that there is the potential for many mistakes, which could prove costly and (potentially) lethal. HGVs have been human operated since they joined our roads, and naturally, this allows for a significant level of control over technology. Along with the potential for devastation and uncertainty for professional drivers, it seems to be a backwards step for logistics.