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Suspicious Minds

A short post caught my eye this week on Facebook, and it also caught the eye of some other trucking folk with suspicious minds. This wasn’t the usual fodder we see on Facebook, it wasn’t a slick video advertising the latest super gadget you can’t live without, or a rant from someone bagging some other section of society, there were no cat videos involved either.

 

The short text article said it was from someone working for the A Current Affair TV show wanting to do a story from the truck driver’s point of view about car driver behaviour around trucks. There was simply someone’s name and a telephone number to call, no picture, no logo and no Facebook profile to go with our gallant reporter.

 

Some of the original comments the post drew were coming up with some subjects the TV show might want to cover. Points were made about caravanners and their lack of knowledge around trucks. Others pointed to information around blindspots, plus stuff about courtesy and consideration. It was all done in a civilised tone, even though the commenters were clearly angry about the situation.

 

Quite soon after the post appeared some bright spark pointed out the bad spelling and grammar of the original article. They pointed out it was likely to be some sort of hoax, or ACA was setting the truckies up for some sort of beat-up.

 

The trucking industry has every right to be extremely suspicious of the general media, and most especially of the ACA program and its people. There have been countless stories on the show purporting to show drug-crazed drivers behind the wheel of 60-tonne monsters. Even when genuine trucking people go on the show voluntarily to put their side of the story, they have to watch as they are unfairly misrepresented and the trucking industry gets another kicking from the media.

 

Not surprisingly, the tenor of most of the rest of the comments around this subject centred around the various stitch-ups that have occurred over the years involving Mike Munro, Tracy Grimshaw and their team. Needless to say, the comments don’t paint a very nice picture of the relationship between trucking and ACA.

 

Those involved have every right to be angry about the way the trucking industry is portrayed. It’s not just sensationalist rubbish like ACA that misrepresents the trucking industry consistently.

 

I had to point out to the ABC last year how its story on the suggestion to put B-triples on the Hume Highway, which was a balanced account, should not have been accompanied by pictures of triple road trains running down dirt roads in the outback. The reply I received from the show’s producers didn’t make me any more comfortable, showing a complete misunderstanding of the situation.

 

So, we are right to be very suspicious of all media and to expect to get burned every time we interact with them. It doesn’t have to be this way, other industries with a lot more negative aspects to them get better coverage than we do.

 

There is very little real media savvy thinking going on in the trucking industry. As a whole we come across as naive and disparate. On one issue we give out myriad conflicting messages. This gives the general media the opportunity to pick and choose the message and then misrepresent us to the world.

 

Come on trucking! This is the 21st century, we need to think and act like a modern industry. We need to use our suspicion of those outside the industry to motivate us to work on a common approach to the media and shut down the confusing cloud of negativity we often project to the world.

Passion for Trucking

If there is one thing we can see every day in our industry, it is how people have a genuine passion for their job, or their truck. It’s difficult to work out where this passion might come from, and the people who are passionate about their job will also give you chapter and verse of everything that is wrong with the industry. Read more

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If a Job’s Worth Doing

It is an old saying, but it does still hold true – if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well. However, we are told we are in the ‘age of entitlement’ and this is supposed to go hand in hand with an unwillingness to get stuck in and do a good job, on the part of the up-and-coming generation.

 

Walk around any transport business and what you will see will give the lie to the perception that young people are unwilling to work hard and lack the enthusiasm and motivation to tackle many jobs in the trucking industry.

 

There are lots of smart young people working in trucking. The problem is there aren’t enough of them to fill the gaps. The trucking industry continues to expand and need new personnel to handle the task.

 

There isn’t something wrong with the young people who should be coming into our industry, there’s something wrong with our industry, or, to be more precise, the perception of our industry on the part of others, this is particularly the case with exactly the type of young people we need to attract.

 

The fact of the matter is the trucking industry isn’t badly paid, even when you are starting off at the foot of the ladder. Working conditions aren’t that bad either. Most trucking operations have to run a pretty tight ship these days to take account of workplace health and safety (WHS) and chain of responsibility (CoR) rules, as well as the need to make it an attractive workplace to keep the existing staff.

 

It’s a good industry and pays well, but it struggles to attract the brightest and the most motivated. What could be the problem? Unfortunately, the answer is the same as it is when many questions are asked about trucking’s woes, it’s about the perception of the industry by those who are not part of it.

 

There are several causes of this misperception – some of them are historical and just about all of them are of our own doing. There are many in trucking that live in the past, hanker for the good old days. They are always complaining how they can’t do things they could in the past, that all this red tape and paperwork is ruining the industry.

 

Get over it! The trucking industry needs to be a modern, forward-thinking one to enable it to handle an ever-increasing freight task on ever-more congested roads and using crumbling infrastructure to get the job done.

 

We don’t need pessimism and a complaining attitude; we need a positive go-getter attitude to take on the challenges. This is the environment we need to work in, whether it be the regulatory one, the economic one or any other environment.

 

The one single attribute the trucking industry has always had and needs to keep a strong grip on is the ability to look for a solution and get the job done in a practical way. Trucking people have always come up with a solution that works for them and works for the customer.

 

A bit more of this positivism will be reflected in the perception people have when looking in from the outside. We need to tell our story and show how we have solved the riddle of moving stuff from A to B in the economy and world of 2017 and how we are using the latest smarts in an innovative way.

 

Once we pump a bit more positivism through the system and do a bit less whingeing about the good old days, we may find young people rediscover a dynamic fast-paced and technologically cutting-edge industry like trucking, and want to work in it.

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Looking in from the Outside

It’s not until you start looking in from the outside that you can see the full picture and get some perspective. I have just returned from a holiday in Europe and became a casual observer of the way road transport is handled in Spain, France and the UK.

 

Apart from the obvious differences, like driving on the wrong side of the road and pulling semi-trailers with a single drive prime mover, there is a lot more to think about. The European economy seems to be picking up and, as a result, the trucking industry is hauling more freight.

 

Watching how much of the freight makes it from A to B shows us just how inefficient their transport system is in comparison to our own. First, the biggest truck on the road is semi and often limited to just 40 tonnes gross combination mass (GCM). Second, a lot of the final-mile delivery work is handled by small vans, and I mean small vans, not at a five or six tonne GCM but closer to two.

 

The sheer geography of a lot of the urban environment means it is easier to get around the city in something not much bigger than a car, but even on the outer edges of the cities, vans predominate. Smaller vans means more trips, more vans and more man hours. This equates to lower efficiency.

 

Out on the main freight routes, the roads are a constant stream of semis travelling on the limiter at 90km/h and driving tail to tail for long periods. The combination of the 16.5-metre length limit and a maximum trailer height of four metres means these trailers are cubed out in most cases and running well below maximum gross weights.

 

Rational solutions to the crowded city delivery issues are being tried in the more rational Scandinavian countries, with Stockholm running a consolidation distribution system for deliveries into the city. However, these kinds of ideas are unlikely to get started in the less rational Mediterranean cities. The inefficient and chaotic delivery infrastructure is going to remain the norm.

 

The argument for longer heavier trucks and platooning of line haul trucking in Europe is obvious to the casual Australian observer. A lot of trucks are engaged in a form of ‘virtual’ platooning anyway. They are sitting 40 metres off the truck in front and using active cruise control to maintain distance and speed. Fuel efficiency gains are achievable like this, but getting much closer with some form of autonomous control would reap big savings.

 

A-double combinations would also reap big rewards in these situations. It is not unusual to see several trucks from the same operator, clearly hauling the same goods to the same destination, traveling along together, a strong argument for road trains and a quantum leap in efficiency.

 

Returning home and heading out on the highway from the airport and seeing the trucks on our roads drives home just how efficient we have become, when compared to the rest of the world. We are doing a lot of things right.

 

B-doubles are now the default method of hauling freight in Australia. A-double and larger trucks are handling container movements in and out of ports to regional locations. Even road construction sites are more efficient, on the European motorways you can drive past kilometres of parked rigid tippers in queues. The same amount of material is getting shifted here in ever-larger tipper and dog units at a much lower cost.

 

Next time you think the trucking game is lagging behind in Australia, just have a look at how the job is done elsewhere and things might seem quite so bad.

Remain Vigilant

Flavour of the Month

Or perhaps that should be flavour of the decade? Every day there seems to be a new story about autonomous trucks or automated driving systems coming out. The news stories veer from optimistic ‘brave new world starts now’ in style, to some horror story about the dangers of computer-controlled monsters. Then there’s a future when we don’t need truckies and everything-will-be-delivered-to-our-backyard-by-drone scenarios.

 

This isn’t just hype, there are some serious global players tipping serious investment into the whole area. When you have Amazon, Uber, Tesla, Daimler, Volkswagen, Volvo and many more spending big in research and development, you know something is going change. These kinds of global companies don’t invest large amounts unless they are pretty certain of the outcome.

 

There is one aspect of this whole area that seems to get missed by most of the reports, and most of the commentators on the topic – this is not all going to happen at once. We are not going to be driving all of our trucks today and then kicked out the cabin to let the robots take over tomorrow. It is a process, quite a long process.

 

In fact, automotive society SAE International has created five stages of autonomous vehicles, as a guide to understanding where we are now and where we may end up. These have been clearly defined and the demarcations are being used both by those people developing the new technologies and those developing legislation and a framework in which automation can work.

 

At the moment, we are in stage one, with stage two available in some cases. There is some autonomy, with systems like adaptive cruise control and automatic emergency braking, but that’s as far as it goes, just for now.

 

The next step will be in the realm of steering, where lane-keeping warning systems don’t just set off a buzzer, but also intervene and kick the steering back into the lane. Now, we are starting to get into the realm of an autonomous truck, but we are very far from a ‘driverless’ truck. That is much further away.

 

At this stage, we still need an alert driver in the driving seat able to intervene at any moment. They may not have their hands on the wheel, but they are still needed. The truck, on its own, will keep going at the set speed and keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead. If something stops abruptly or appears in front of the truck, the emergency braking will activate. The truck will stay in the lane it is in without veering off course. That’s it. The driver is still vital to the safety of the truck and other road users.

 

Even the stage after that will involve considerable driver input. Platooning is one of those technologies that should come into play at this stage in development. The driver of the front truck is in control, often in the same way as in the truck described above. The two or three trucks trailing behind will still need a minder but will simply mimic the action of the front truck in most situations.

 

If something drastic does go wrong, they will be programmed to bring themselves to a halt as safely as possible. If the problem is less severe, the truck’s driver will be alerted to return to the driving seat and resume control.

 

Even at this level we are miles away from the ‘driverless’ truck we keep hearing about. Those are not going to be thinkable until we have smart highways where the road signs and traffic signal are all communicating with the vehicles on the road, and all of the vehicles on that road are using Intelligent Transport System (ITS) to run their control systems.

 

To get some real ITS capability on Australian roads is going to be a project on the scale of the NBN rollout, and we know long some of us are having to wait for that. Driverless trucks are quite some time away, but we need to arm ourselves with the right information about their potential and prepare for their arrival, whenever that may be.

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Autonomous Trucks? Don’t Bother

Why are there so many stories about autonomous trucks? Don’t bother about them; I have a much better solution for road safety. A quick look at the accident stats will tell you the problem with road safety will not be fixed by introducing autonomous trucks, quite the opposite.

 

Let’s imagine an Australia where autonomous trucks are not only allowed, but actively encouraged. The technology exists to keep the trucks on the road and running at a safe and legal speed. GPS positioning means the truck knows exactly where it is at all times.

 

Add LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) into the mix, this light radar sends out a layered series of beams and give the controlling computer a picture of moving and stationary objects around it. From this data it can work out what it is, whether it is moving, if so in what direction and at what speed.

 

All of this technology is available now. What needs to be developed is protocols under which such a system has to work. How far away from a parked car must a truck pass, would be an example. Setting speeds for certain road conditions and traffic levels would also be important.

 

Then there is the decision making to consider. This is what the truck control system will do when something goes wrong. The computer is capable of making an instantaneous decision, if it has sufficient data. It will also be capable of using both steering and braking system to avoid something or stop safely. We can assume the truck will use all of the latest electronic braking and stability control to maximise the safety of an incident.

 

There is one problem, and it’s a big problem. In fact it’s the big problem today, and it won’t go away if all of our trucks are autonomous. It’s the other vehicles on the road that are the problem, they are the cause of most of the accidents.

 

So, don’t bother with autonomous trucks at all. Just make all cars autonomous and you will cut fatality rates instantly. In the case of fatal accidents in which a truck and a light vehicle are involved, around 90 per cent of the accidents are caused by the car driver.

 

If we really want to stop fatalities through incidents involving trucks and cars on our roads, we simply have to take control of the cars away from the human beings and hand it over to the robots. All of the technology, which makes the autonomous truck safe makes the autonomous car even safer.

 

If the roads were full of autonomous trucks, there would still be light vehicle drivers acting recklessly and stupidly and putting themselves in harm’s way. The sheer unpredictability of the car driver would puzzle the computer, just as much as does the current controller, the truck driver.

 

On the other hand, having all of the cars on the road behaving rationally would totally transform life on the road. Truck drivers in an 85-tonne A-double would be able to drive along the highway, surrounded by cars and be secure they would all act rationally and safely around the truck. More importantly, there’s a good chance nearly 90 per cent of all accidents involving a fatality, a car and a truck would be prevented.

Taking the Rough with the Smooth

I have been looking back at some of the opinion pieces I have written over the years and reckon the phrase, ‘taking the rough with the smooth’ is quite relevant to many of the topics raised. Nobody ever went into the trucking industry for an easy ride. Read more

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White Males Only

Look around many transport companies and the sign on the door could easily read, ‘White Males Only’. This is unfortunate, but it is true. The level of inclusivity in the trucking industry is extremely low, and has been for a long time.

 

Of course, there are always plenty of shining examples that contradict this assertion, but just do a straw poll around people you know. The overall majority of the operators in this country are the same sex and colour, and often in a similar age bracket.

 

This is not the past. There are not truck drivers and diesel technicians walking out of the schools of Australia and into the trucking industry. Those days have gone. We are now in a world where the experienced operators are getting older. They are getting older, annually, by about one year.

 

These older workers, now in their fifties and sixties started working in a very different truck industry, and they will be choosing to retire very soon. Many of them will have the bad back, the arthritis, the dodgy knee to show for the 1970’s and 1980’s lack of attention to health and safety and a reliance on a ‘just getting the job done whatever it takes’ attitude.

 

Trucking isn’t the only industry that is populated in such a way, but it is one which is crying out for bright young operatives to come in and refresh the workforce and push it on into the future. There is a massive chunk of our population who are wanting to make their mark and get ahead, but who feel excluded from our industry.

 

We love the trucking game and get a great deal out of working in trucking. Things that have nothing to do with remuneration, it’s all about the social connections and the good fun, people with a common interest can enjoy.

 

The solution would appear to be difficult to find. If someone feels excluded, they are not going to keep coming back and knocking on the door until they don’t feel excluded, they will go elsewhere. We have to be seen to be embracing diversity, in a positive manner to create an environment that is all about inclusion.

 

The sort of environment in which people other than middle-aged white men can feel comfortable does exist, it doesn’t have feel uncomfortable for the white males already involved, there is a medium to be had.

 

The difficult thing is to find a happy medium. It’s still the trucking industry as we know it, but with the bits which foster exclusion reduced or removed. Do we want this? We have no choice. The freight tasks continues to grow at a fast rate and even with autonomous trucks and a rail freight expansion, there will still be more people needed to work in the industry.

Technology Marches On

The trucking industry changes very quickly, as technology marches on, higher and higher. Ask anyone working in trucking about the biggest changes in their career and they would all be technology related. Read more

Engage, Engage, Engage!

There’s a lot going on in the regulation and legislation space in the next few years and the trucking industry will need to heed the clarion call to Engage, Engage, Engage! Unless, of course, we want to repeat the mistakes of the past and carry on the way we have for the past forty years. Read more