I sometimes wonder whether we are all getting caught up in a lot of high technology hype, getting carried away with autonomous electric trucks et al. Every day there is some new electric or fuel cell truck, a new technology is going to revolutionise trucks and trucking overnight.
We can all get a bit dazzled by the wonderful technology which is coming down the pike and expect the world to change overnight, but there are some realities we need to remember. Firstly, we are a technology taker. In the main, new technology coming into the Australian trucking game is sourced from elsewhere. Secondly, we are a small, low volume market on the other side of the world from most technology development.
The fact of the matter is in ten years time the reality of trucking for most people involved in the business will be little changed. The truck will be driven by a driver and it will have a diesel engine as its principal source of power. Loads will have to be loaded onto the truck, secured and make their way from point A to point B much as they do today.
The difference will probably be in control systems for the process. The load will be tracked and traced and all of the interactions followed live on line. The whole process is likely to be involved in some form of blockchain, with monetary transactions taking place as physical transactions take place on the ground.
The truck and driver will probably be fully tracked with routing optimised by a system which monitors the truck itself, the vehicles around it and information gathered from smart road infrastructure, especially in the cities.
The regulators are also likely to have visibility into what is going on. The truck’s behaviour will be monitored in terms of mass, route compliance, driver fatigue, time of day etc. This monitoring will, hopefully, be in return for real productivity benefits for the operator.
It would be great to think all of the power plants in the trucks would be electric, or whatever technology will best reduce global warming, but the reality is that kind of technology changeover will be a massive undertaking. Transferring over from diesel power to electric power is going to take a lot of investment and time. The other statistic to understand is the fact the average age of a truck in Australia is 14 years old. In ten years time most trucks on the road will have been built before 2020, when diesel was still king.
Then there is the infrastructure to consider. We are a vast country with massive distances involved. Changing all of those servos into charging stations with enough access to the grid to power thousands of trucks is going to take more than a couple of years. Can our current, failing electricity grid cope with the change?
Then there’s the question of autonomous driving. The technology is advancing fast and we have seen massive technological leaps in recent years. Just look at mobile phone improvements. However, this is Australia.
The issue is the environment and autonomous vehicles need a predictable environment. These kinds of trucks will work well in mine sites, waterfront container areas and so on. The point at which there will be predictability enough for autonomous trucks out on the road will be when all of the cars are autonomous. This will eliminate the most dangerous aspect of truck driving, car drivers!