Complex Made Simple

Driverless trucks enroute to the Middle East

Automated road freight will save costs, reduce emissions, make roads safer. But the impact on driver jobs requires a managed transition, says a new study.

Governments must consider ways to manage the transition to driverless trucks in order to avoid potential social disruption from job losses, says the report published by the International Transport Forum (ITF) with three partner organisations.

Self-driving trucks will help save costs, lower emissions and make roads safer. They could also address the shortage of professional drivers faced by road transport industry, the study says.

But automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50-70 per cent in the US and Europe by 2030, with up to 4.4 million of the projected 6.4 million professional trucking jobs becoming redundant, according to one scenario.

Even if the rise of driverless trucks dissuades newcomers from trucking, over two million drivers in the US and Europe could be directly displaced, according to scenarios examined for the report.

Middle East trucking to the future

In recent years, governments within the GCC have launched major initiatives to shift to a knowledge-based economy, digitize industries, and create technology-based jobs for nationals. One critical area that many policymakers have not considered — but should — is cargo freight, and particularly the trucking industry, according to a report by advisory firm Strategy&.

Autonomous trucks, which are capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input (using GPS technology, radar, sensors, cameras, and software), are currently in development and will likely go into mass production within 10 to 15 years.

The technology holds particular promise for the GCC because it can greatly improve the region’s freight transportation industry and because it furthers the aim of GCC countries to digitize and diversify their economies.

Trucking is the predominant mode of freight transportation in the GCC. Today, practically all land cargo within the region travels by road. More than one million trucks are in operation, a number that increases by five to nine per cent each year, the report said.

One reason is that truck transport is artificially cheap. Government fuel subsidies reduce gasoline (petroleum) costs — one of the largest expenses of trucking companies — by at least 20 per cent.

In some countries subsidies may reduce gasoline costs by as much as 60 to 80 per cent. Furthermore, a lack of regulation in the GCC contributes to artificially low operating costs for trucking companies.

For example, although the maximum cargo load is limited to 45 tons, some countries do not enforce the limit, and trucks often carry up to 75 tons.

Drivers often exceed their maximum number of driving hours per day, exceed speed limits to get to destinations faster, and make more trips than allowed — whether to receive overtime pay or simply because their employer requires them to do so.

Companies cut corners on maintenance, and some trucks operate in conditions that would be unacceptable in most mature markets, the report says.

As a result, trucks cause thousands of accidents in the GCC each year. Overall, accidents involving heavy trucks account for at least ten per cent of road traffic fatalities, and cost up to $8 billion per year in accidents and injuries, according to Strategy& estimates.

GCC governments have invested heavily to build railways, which offer a more cost-effective, safer, and environmentally friendlier alternative to truck transport.

However, given the generally short distances involved in freight delivery, only 15 to 20 per cent of current freight cargo is expected to shift from road to rail.

Global action on driver jobs and legal issues​​

The International Transport Forum (ITF) report was prepared by the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), the International Transport Workers’ Federation and the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the road transport’s industry’s global body, in a project led by the International Transport Forum, a Paris-based intergovernmental organisation linked to the OECD.

It makes four recommendations to help manage the transition to driverless road freight:

1. Establish a transition advisory board to advise on labour issues.

2. Consider a temporary permit system to manage the speed of adoption.

3. Set international standards, road rules and vehicle regulations for self-driving trucks.

4. Continue pilot projects with driverless trucks to test vehicles, network technology and communications protocols.

These recommendations were agreed jointly by organisations representing truck manufacturers, truck operators and transport workers’ unions, under the auspices of an intergovernmental organisation. This broad coalition of stakeholders lends the call to action particular weight.

José Viegas, Secretary-General of the International Transport Forum (ITF) said: “Driverless trucks could be a regular presence on many roads within the next ten years. Self-driving trucks already operate in controlled environments like ports or mines. Trials on public roads are under way in many regions. Manufacturers are investing heavily into automation, and many governments are actively reviewing their regulations. Preparing now for potential negative social impact of job losses will mitigate the risks in case a rapid transition occurs.”

The ITF is an intergovernmental organisation with 57 member countries. The only global body for all modes, it acts as policy think tank and organises the annual summit of transport ministers.

Christian Labrot, President, International Road Transport Union (IRU), said: “Autonomous trucks will bring many benefits to society, from cost savings and lower emissions to safer roads. Autonomous vehicles will also help the haulage sector deal with the current shortage of drivers in many parts of the world. However we have to remember the dedicated drivers of today will need to be retrained tomorrow, and we must keep attracting professionals into road transport. We all need to work together for a smooth transition to driverless technology.”

IRU is the global industry association for road transport, representing truck, bus, coach and taxi operators, with members and activities in more than 100 countries.

Steve Cotton, General Secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said: “Automation in trucking demands a managed and just transition. We strongly welcome the report’s recommendation that trade unions must be part of any such process. We must avoid excessive hardship for truck drivers and ensure the gains from the technology are fairly shared across society. Self-driving trucks threaten to disrupt the careers and lives of millions of professional truck drivers. This report is a timely investigation into how that transition could happen. Its recommendations will help governments to ensure a just transition for affected drivers.”

The International Transport Workers’ Federation is a global association of around 700 unions representing over 4.5 million transport workers from some 150 countries.