Recently Singapore announced that the Island state will make a push to introduce driverless vehicles. Starting with smaller buses in tourist attractions, the purpose is to gather data in order to scale the project up. Tests with truck platooning has also seen some very interesting results in Europe. Should all truckers now be in a panic over the prospect of losing their jobs?
The Eye in the Truck
I think not. For a start, there is still a lot of work to be done before the truly driverless truck can be deployed. Even though the technology has come a long way, the vehicles on trial in Singapore are still having a "driver" on board to be able to intervene in case something happens. And while the truck might be driverless, the vehicle will still need supporting infrastructure. Depending on how the vehicle is being guided, one would need either fantastic GPS coverage and accuracy or clearly marked lanes for the "eye in the truck" to be able to pilot along the street.
So, while all this is being set up, the need for the traditional driver is still there and growing. Even when the technology is ready, there would still be a transition period as it would be unlikely that fleet owners would switch to driverless vehicles overnight. At least not those who have more than a handful of trucks as the investment needs to be carefully planned and executed over time. And if you think about the effort needed for a small place like Singapore, then imagine what it would take to get a country like Thailand or Vietnam prepared for this step.
Not Fool Proof
Another aspect yet to be fully addressed is that of the insurance for the vehicles. While the driverless tractor is reducing or eliminating the possibility of human error, there is always the possibility that electronics or software might fail. Please put your hands up if you are using a PC and have seen a "blue screen". Who will be responsible in such a case when a driverless truck has a systems melt down and causes an accident? Do we need to have maintenance protocols for software too in order to shift the responsibility from the OEM to the vehicle operator?
Long distance transportation is another issue that needs to be addressed. Now that we have the ASEAN Economic Community in place, it is possible to ply through many countries without restrictions. At least in theory. Here again there will be obstacles to overcome before the truly driverless truck can be used. For example countries will need to agree on providing the same infrastructure for driverless trucks. Currently, paperwork is still needed for the passage between countries. Certainly, that too could be done online with a system that would render the pilot unemployed, but again, this may also be a long way to go. Meanwhile, we still have issues to address when it comes to long haul operations. Issues that might be best solved by humans as they may be more responsive and pragmatic.
Ultimately, we will see a shift to driverless trucks. This may be a trend that cannot be stopped. However, there will still be people needed around them. Maybe not as drivers, but as software developers, test drivers and mechanics. The driverless truck may also be an opportunity for more people to start their own business. While the truck is driving, the owner can ride along and handle paperwork, making the cab his rolling office. It may be premature to start retraining your drivers now, but someday the future vision of the automated vehicle will be reality. And I am sure that many of us will still be around to see it.