Feature, Truck Technology

The ‘workforce issues’ and ‘commercial imperatives’ of automated trucks

Automated trucks

If you were lucky, you may have gotten a glimpse at Australia’s first on-road trial of automated trucks in 2022, completed by Transurban along Melbourne’s Citylink.

Autonomous trucks may seem like a far away future, something straight out of a science fiction blockbuster, but the technology is growing faster than many in the industry may realise.

There’s a slow adoption of automated trucks across the industry in certain sectors. Scania has been utilising a tip truck at mining sites in the Pilbara, with less complexity needed in a closed site than on the open road.

Executive director of the Centre for Connected and Automated Transport (CCAT) Rahila David says that there are trends starting to emerge across the transport sector in Australia as operators and manufacturers consider the benefits of automated trucks.

She has extensive experience in the emerging area, having previously led the development of the safety assurance framework for the commercial deployment of automated vehicles in Australia while at the National Transport Commission.

“There are five levels of automation, moving from a vehicle where you have to do everything at zero to a vehicle that can move by itself under any condition at five,” David explains.

“Level four automated trucks and those without drivers are where we’re seeing development and commercial imperatives. We’re currently dealing with limited complexity.

“That’s what allowing the technology to be developed quicker. It’s that hub-to-hub route where it’s being developed.

“Some OEMs are developing automated driving systems themselves, but some that are partnering with software companies. Others are leaving the market, and some are entering it.

“We spoke to one manufacturer in the US that said they were looking to deploy hub-to-hub automated trucks on the open road by the end of the decade. What’s clear is that the technology is coming and it might not be as far away as we think.”

Automated trucks
Scania’s automated mining truck. (Image: Scania Australia)

One of the concerns that has been raised around the development of automated trucks is what it means for the truck driving profession.

While Australia continues to face a skilled driver shortage, David believes that driverless vehicles could help to close the gap in the employee pool, but won’t completely put truck drivers out of a job.

If anything, she says it could add to the responsibilities of drivers, or change what kind of jobs could become available with the advent of commonly used automated trucks.

“There are a number of workforce issues that could arise as a result of automated trucks entering the market, but for commercial imperatives, we can address the driver shortage,” David says.

“There’s also the potential to open up the flexibility of operations. You can have more operation time with automated trucks driving for 24 hours. Not having a driver in the vehicle can also reduce operating costs.

“Driving jobs could change in the future, and we saw that this week with the Transport Workers Union’s response to the Transurban trial. It’s a slow deployment of this technology, and there’s still a significant lack of skilled drivers.

“What we’ll be hearing from the manufacturers is that driving jobs won’t be lost because of that gap that already exists. Driving jobs could become more attractive.

“When you take automation to cover long distances, the drivers job might be to do the first or last mile closer to communities.”

David also believes that the way that manufacturers approach how they integrate automated trucks into their fleets will have a significant effect on their development in Australia.

“New business models are emerging around automated trucks,” she says.

“Manufacturers are having ongoing relationships with their fleet operators. They don’t just provide a vehicle, they’re providing more of a service.”

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