A report on the situation of EU road transport warns that a shortage of truck drivers could become a severe problem if the economic situation in the EU improves. The report commissioned by the EU (published in June) proposes several measures including:
– Improve the truck driver’s image and career prospects
– Improve quality of work
– Reduce the entry barriers (license fees)
– Implement coach relays to ensure more drivers can stay home overnight
The report discusses several innovations that might be relevant to the profession but does not even mention autonomous vehicle technology. This is surprising because self-driving trucks would be an excellent starting point for autonomous vehicles as they would lead to high productivity increases (about 30 percent of total truck operating costs are driver wages). Risk could be minimized by operating on highways only – hauling long distance freight between select distribution centers. Human drivers could then distribute the freight locally.
The report should be seen as further evidence to encourage the introduction of driverless technology in transporation because it shows that few people consider trucking as their dream job (many of jobless Europeans are not willing to enter this profession) and because it reduces the worry about technology-induced job losses.
An opinion piece in the WSJ on July 17 criticized investment in the proposed bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco. It then advocated preparing the road infrastructure for the advent of driverless cars: The number of lanes should be increased because driverless cars can cope with narrower lanes. Trucks should be limited to one or two wider lanes (ideally separate from car lanes). Traffic flow control systems would have to be installed to optimize traffic flow – both on the highway and in the city where stop lights often increase congestion.
The author points out interesting issues but fails to recognize the decentralized nature of the driverless revolution. These cars do not require modifications to the existing infrastructure. They will drive where a human can drive. But their behavior and economics differ. They will naturally improve the flow of traffic. Driverless cars increase the peak capacity of the existing infrastructure because they can safely keep shorter distances to other cars. Even a small percentage of driverless cars mixed into regular traffic can reduce congestion by adopting an optimal speed or by simply keeping side-by-side with another (automated?) car in two-lane pile-ups effectively preventing other cars from lane-hopping. The cost-structure of driverless car sharing and the need for demand management by mobility providers are also important factors that will reduce peak loads on the traffic infrastructure.
There is no need for driverless road infrastructure investment. Governments would be well advised, however, to invest directly into advancing driverless technology. Fewer traffic accidents would save hundreds of millions of dollars every year. Better road utilization exhibited by driverless cars will also greatly lower the costs for building and maintaining the road infrastructure.
We just came across a talk by Chris Gerdes at the recent TEDxStanford conference. He is busy developing autonomous race cars. Driving these cars autonomously at their limit at high speed, difficult tracks and on slippery surfaces greatly helps improve the algorithms and could also be important to increase acceptance of this technology.
The team has is also carefully analyzing the behavior of professional race drivers to learn about optimal car handling in critical situations. They have gone so far as to equip race drivers with sensors to continuously measure their cognitive load while on the race track. Gerdes hopes to replicate some of the maneuvers that race drivers handle almost instinctively and with very little cognitive load.
A recent report by strategy consulting firm Celent (Boston) looks at the impact of advanced technology on the auto insurance industry. Based on a review of available and emerging safety technology – including collision avoidance, automated traffic law enforcement, telematics and robot cars – it provides estimates for the reduction of accidents. One of its scenarios predicts total auto industry premium to drop from 25 percent of total insurance industry premiums to only 13 percent by 2022. Most of these reductions will be due to available safety technology; fully autonomous cars will make their impact felt in the decade thereafter.
The report entitled ‘A scenario: The death of auto insurance‘ analyzes the adoption of advanced car technologies. It sees the first robot cars becoming available for private use in the time frame between 2018 and 2022. Between 2023 and 2027 the author expects driverless technology to become a preferred feature of high-end cars. Its adoption may be subsidized through tax incentives. The timeline ends in 2027; the report does not give an estimate for when driverless technology will be required in new cars.
The report asks the auto industry to actively prepare for this scenario. It recommends to
expect the largest impact in activity and budget levels for sales service and claims
begin monitoring the evolution of technology-induced changes in insurance losses
draft a strategy for addressing the impacts (expand non-auto business, grow through mergers and acquisitions, accept shrinking revenues)
The report should also be a wake-up call to other industries which will be affected by driverless technologies. While some industries are at risk (including car dealerships, repair shops and auto manufacturers), it presents great opportunities to many others – which will be able to introduce completely new services and business models.