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Trucks drivers may become obsolete, replaced by sensors, automatic controls

Commercial application of self-driving trucks is progressing perhaps more steadily than for autonomous passenger cars because they aren't subject to  vagaries of downtown traffic.
Ti Gong

Earlier this month, Volvo Group unveiled an autonomous concept truck for the first time in China.

Commercial application of self-driving trucks is progressing perhaps more steadily than for autonomous passenger cars because trucks operate on open highways and aren’t subject to the vagaries of downtown traffic.

“Self-driving trucks will be able to operate commercially in confined areas, such as quarries,” said Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer of Volvo Group during an interview with Shanghai Daily. “In reality, they are almost doing that now. The self-driving technology will reach more public areas, like harbors and dedicated highway lanes.”

Earlier this month, Volvo Group unveiled an autonomous concept truck for the first time in China. The truck is designed for hub-to-hub transport in semi-confined areas. It has been trialed in Beijing, where onlookers could watch it turn and do other maneuvers without a driver.

Volvo Group said the truck navigates by using Lidar and GPS technology to continuously read its surroundings. It can maneuver around fixed and movable obstacles while gathering data via an on-board system that helps optimize its route, ensure safety and conserve fuel.

Hu Yumo / SHINE

Volvo Group said the truck navigates by using Lidar and GPS technology to continuously read its surroundings.

The company said it is in discussions with different customers around the world ahead of trials in enclosed spaces, such as quarries and harbor terminals. No specific timeline has been revealed for mass commercialization.

Volvo Group is not the only vehicle maker developing driverless trucks. Daimler Truck tested driverless truck convoys on public highways in the US in September, and Uber shipped a trailer of Budweiser beer in a self-driving truck 120 miles along a US highway last year.

Ti Gong

Daimler Truck tested driverless truck convoys on public highways in the US in September,

Self-driving trucks have their pros and cons. The need for more efficient goods transportation is rising globally, amid an atmosphere where costs and environmental damage also need to be minimized.

Self-driving trucks are being touted as fuel-efficient and maintenance friendly.

David Zhang, an independent automotive consultant, said, “Self-driving trucks are expected to reduce costs to companies. Compared with human drivers, self-driving trucks are operated by machines using deep learning systems. By contrast, some truck drivers press the accelerator with great force, which is not fuel-saving.”

Zhang said a fleet of self-driving trucks can be made to drive closely behind one another. The first truck will be autonomously driven, while those behind just follow its lead.

Safer to drive

“With the use of sensors and a vehicle control unit, it is easy to achieve platooning from a technical perspective,” he said.

The commercial application of self-driving trucks is also touted as a public good.

“The introduction of self-driving trucks is expected to increase road safety,” Stenqvist said. “Research shows that humans cause 80-90 percent of road accidents. The new technology will result in a decrease in the number of accidents, which means an increase in road safety.”

However, he mentioned that application of self-driving vehicles in downtown areas will need to come in careful sequence.

“A lot of people might be scared,” he said. “But a step-by-step approach will allow people to get used to the idea of autonomous vehicles. As companies prove that their vehicles are safe, public acceptance will follow gradually.”

Of course, autonomous trucks are not good news for truck drivers.

The International Transport Forum said in a report that “self-driving trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50 percent to 70 percent in the US and Europe by 2030, with up to 4.4 million professional trucking jobs becoming redundant.”

“Automation in trucking demands a managed and just transition,” said Steve Cotton, general-secretary of the International Transport Workers’ Federation. “We must avoid excessive hardship on truck drivers and ensure that gains from technology are fairly shared across society. Self-driving trucks threaten to disrupt the careers and lives of millions of professional truck drivers.”

China has an estimated 30 million truck drivers, carrying three-quarters of the nation’s freight traffic.

“In the short-term, there won’t be any immediate effect on the truck drivers,” said Zhang Xiaofeng, an independent market observer. “In the long run, self-driving trucks will mean some unemployment of truck drivers. There is no need to worry too much. We have to realize that truck drivers will find new jobs in other sectors.”


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