Let’s have a mature, calm conversation about driverless trucks and drone deliveries

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If we are to believe the headlines, then driverless trucks and drones are about to revolutionise delivery transport. But how close are these developments, really?

These developments will likely be academic for years to come. There is more value in looking at what we can do now to improve efficiency with technology and processes which are already available.

Don’t get me wrong – technology will eventually have a huge impact and bring improvements. But we need to bring a healthy scepticism to the big claims currently being made.

Consider an extraordinary recent claim from a Stanford economist predicting petrol vehicles will vanish within eight years – what are we to make of such bold predictions, aside from its click-bait headline? The oil industry is a global behemoth, and internal combustion vehicles currently have a massive edge on power, distance, reliability and price point. Something incredible will need to happen to see all internal combustion engines replaced by electric vehicles with competitive prices and performance in a mere eight years.

Other headlines suggest we soon won’t need drivers at all. I think there needs to be an honest, mature conversation about self-driving vehicles.

The supposed economic gains raise as many questions as answers. We don’t know what the price point for purchasing a self-driving vehicle will be. We don’t know how the regulators will deal with them, don’t know the running costs (though there are claims they will cut down on fuel costs), and don’t know how insurers will view them.

The human factor is the big question. The driver is an expensive part of delivery transport, alongside fuel. If these vehicles require ‘babysitters’ who may be called upon to take control, then they need to be qualified drivers, with the appropriate licences and the appropriate pay levels. If a human is required to be present in a driverless vehicle, how deep will the cost savings be?

The most obvious use for self-driving vehicles is long-haul freight. There have been some fascinating moves, including a self-driving truck delivering Budweiser in the USA. Uber Technologies Inc. and Anheuser-Busch InBev NV collaborated to have an 18-wheeler travel 180 miles with a driver present in the sleeper cab, to make the first commercial delivery using the technology. Volvo also demonstrated a self-driving truck last year, on a short journey in a Swedish underground mine.

Before we get too excited about the self-driving capabilities, Gartner offers an interesting statistic – the IT research house predicts less than one per cent of long-haul freight will be carried by driverless trucks by 2021. This is a long-term game.

While we must monitor these developments, will there be any benefit in being an early adopter? There are many examples in business where it has paid to be conservative, let the early adopters make the early mistakes, and wait until prices come down. These vehicles may require a huge investment and still require somebody on board. We don’t even know what the regulators will do with this technology, though it’s bound to become political.

Safety concerns and potential widespread job losses will fuel much debate and we can expect heavy regulatory involvement.

Transport is statistically one of the most dangerous industries in Australia and worldwide – so we all have to work harder on safety. Self-driving vehicles could potentially make big in-roads into safety, but this seems most plausible on long haul, interstate routes, which are more predictable.

Self-driving vehicles in built-up, metro areas is another thing. Will people, and therefore governments, ever accept driverless semi-trailers or B-doubles in built-up areas?

Early research suggests widespread distrust of self-driving vehicles. A US survey of over 2,000 people found over 75 per cent thought they would never own a self-driving car. Everybody knows how technology can ‘crash’, how it can be hacked and corrupted. Those promoting self-driving vehicles need to persuade the public and the politicians they are safe.

Consider it this way: would you put your child in a self-driving car, on their own, without any other human supervision, for them to be driven to school?

Any incident involving a self-driving vehicle anywhere in the world will be headline news. The potential for PR disaster is huge. Yet we’ve lived with human error for a long time. We may not like it, but we understand it. Will people ever be so understanding of computer error?

Drones are another fascinating development, with Amazon investing in the technology. Drones have huge potential for parcel delivery, but don’t do away with your delivery fleets just yet.

The commercial application of drones faces considerable hurdles around airspace and public safety. Some of these drones weigh 25kg – add payload, and that’s a considerable weight to fly over built-up areas. If drones can achieve air clearance and cover off all safety problems, some serious number crunching will need to ascertain whether several drones controlled by people are more cost-efficient than a driver who may carry dozens of parcels in a van.

In my 30+ years in transport I’ve seen many innovations, which should have made bigger impact on efficiency: mobile communications, telematics, vehicle and parcel monitoring, and insourcing. Yet transport remains a top-five cost of doing business, and a continual source of angst in the supply chain.

Many companies could revolutionise their transport right now. Without any massive investment in technology or personnel, most transport divisions could cut their running costs by 10–15 per cent – just by being smarter in how they use their technology and personnel.

There needs to be more focus on what we’ve got. Properly utilising existing technology would be a huge step forward for many organisations.

Doing so would not just deliver immediate benefits, it provides clear thinking on these breakthrough technologies when they finally do become available – any organisation which clearly understands its costs and efficiencies is bound to make the best decisions on future investments.

Walter Scremin is General Manager of Ontime Delivery Solutions.