The future is driverless (but it’s not right around the corner)

Freight transportation is one of the industries that are characterised by both staff shortages and new technologies. New driverless technologies offer new possibilities and demand new forms of standardisation.

Jørn-Henrik Carstens

Several so-called active safety systems are already standard in most lorries. Functions such as automatic emergency braking, distance warning radars and lane departure alerts currently help operate the trucks and act as aids for the driver, benefiting traffic safety.

The sensors, cameras, radars, etc., developed for the safety systems are the first steps on the road towards driverless trucks, according to Jørn-Henrik Carstens, chief consultant in ITD’s business policy department.

ITD is the trade association for Danish road transportation of goods, and represents more than 800 Danish hauliers and logistics companies.

“In my assessment, we won’t see completely driverless lorries on the roads for a good while yet,” says Carstens. “But all the technology and sensors already in the lorries point to a future when we can let go of the wheel and the lorries can drive themselves from A to B.”

No reason to worry
“This will be a game changer for the industry, but there will still be a need for people. So it may not be drivers we need, but operators – because someone still has to manage the logistics.”

In reality, lorry manufacturers have already come a long way with driverless technology, but we’re probably not quite ready to implement it all at once. Carstens believes that the next step is “platoons”: road trains, currently being prepared for trial drives in various places in Europe and the US.

“The lorries are coupled together virtually and drive very close to each other. They are in Wi-Fi or radio contact, and the front lorry sends messages to the rest of the road train about sudden braking, etc. Keeping the lorries so close together saves fuel and makes the best possible use of the infrastructure.”

“At the moment, all lorries have to have a driver at the wheel. The next step may be that the driver can turn around and do paperwork while driving. Later, drivers may be able to sleep in their cabs while the lorries drive themselves in a platoon, and eventually one driver might be able to operate four lorries. But we will still need manpower when the goods have to be unloaded and distributed,” he says.

The technology is here – almost
Hamburg’s container port has a completely driverless area controlled entirely via computers. But this is in an enclosed environment, without people walking around between the containers.

“So the technology is actually close to being ready, but before the driverless technology is fully rolled out there are some ethical considerations and some legal things that must be in place – and, of course, there’s the environment to consider, and us humans, who have to be able to trust the technology. We have to get all this sorted out so that we can feel safe on the roads.”

At the political level, the Danish Minister for Transport has just been allowed to grant permission for pilot projects involving self-driving cars, and the automotive industry is already working on different solutions. 

The green agenda
At the same time, work is being done on finding alternative solutions to diesel fuel. Whether it will be batteries, electricity, hydrogen, induction in the roads, electric cables above the motorways, or brand-new solutions that have not yet been invented, no one knows.

“In our industry, everything has to be streamlined for the sake of both the environment and the economy,” says Carstens. “We need to drive in platoons so the vehicles can drive as efficiently as possible, and the goods handling has to be quick and efficient. The warehouses are becoming more and more automated, so we need more standardisation to improve the efficiency of routine tasks.

“I see UNI-TROLL EUROPE being able to step into this gap. Their trolleys are easy to handle, they can be folded and transported as empty freight, and they can be driven directly from producer to warehouse to lorry to buyer. It’s a small piece in the overall system, but all innovative ideas are valuable,” he concludes.