Reading the Future

Getting With the Program

We can all speculate about what the trucking industry will be like in the future, and we will all be wrong. There are so many different scenarios opening up at the moment – it is impossible to keep up with any of it. There’s electrification, platooning, autonomous trucks, drones, robots and monster ‘fulfilment’ centres on the horizon as we speak.

Looking back into the past, there were long periods when technology hardly changed. Then, when it did, it took a long time before the changes worked their way through the system. From the 1960s though until the 1990s, the basic technology we were using in trucks hardly changed.

The basic diesel engine controlled by a mechanical diesel pump remained very similar over this time. The engines just got bigger and more powerful over twenty-odd years. A mechanic working in a truck workshop in 1969 could fix an engine coming into a workshop in the early 1990s without much trouble. Since then, times have changed. Electronics appeared in the 1990s and the changes have come thick and fast since then.

The old joke still rings true, to a certain extent. The truck tech in their fifties bemoaning the changes in trucks will tell you about how, in their day, if they were called out to a breakdown at 2.00am in the morning, all they needed was a sledgehammer and some gas bottles. Now, however, times have completely changed – when called out they need to load up the laptop, the sledgehammer and some gas bottles.

These changes are likely to pale in comparison to what we should be expecting to see in the next twenty years. The age of electronics is going to take over completely and anyone working in the industry needs to be getting ready for it.

Electrification is one of those things that is always going to happen somewhere else. We talk about how the distances we travel mean a small truck with a range of 200km is no good to us. This may be so, but one quantum leap in battery technology will change the equation completely. It will happen, and soon. A lot of smart money is being thrown at this problem and when it happens, electric truck makers will be snowed under with orders.

Platooning is here already, according to some. They just call them road trains. The technology to make platooning work is with us already. It just needs fine-tuning. Very good efficiency gains can be made with the trucks quite a way apart. Running closer together just needs more accurate sensoring and communication. The legal framework for platooning is falling way behind the technology and we may have to wait for it to catch up.

Autonomous trucks may render platooning redundant if the speed of development continues apace. The efficacy of autonomous cars and trucks in mainly dependent on how long it takes government to tool up the road system with intelligent transport systems communication. Once the truck can talk to the traffic lights and road signs, autonomous vehicles will take off. Again, we will have to wait for the legislation to catch up.

Drones are flavour of the month, every month at the moment. Every TV show features the use of camera drones. Delivery drones are not too far away. The military have led the spending in this area, but all of those systems will quickly adapt into the freight world. Blade Runner–style city streets with flocks of parcel carrying drones flying overhead are not that far away.

As we have seen, the advent of online shopping and its consequent boom in parcel distribution is driving the investment in enormous distribution centres around Australia already. Just add in a few robots and we are talking about something even bigger.

Are we ready for the challenge? Are my roping and sheeting skills going to be consigned to history? We can still be certain the tech getting out of bed at 2.00am will make sure the sledgehammer and gas bottles are in the ute before heading off down the road.