Diesel News’s man in Europe Brian Weatherley left a recent Mercedes-Benz FutureLab seminar with a spinning head…but some clear thoughts on what the inside of tomorrow’s truck cabs could be like.
Lately I’ve been thinking about the future. I suppose it comes from sitting through six hours of crystal-ball gazing courtesy of Mercedes-Benz’s recent ‘FutureLab’ event. Not that I’m complaining. Every day is a learning opportunity and FutureLab gave me plenty to think about, even if my head was spinning from trying to get it around all that information.
As you’d expect, the various workshops tackled all the usual suspects, automation, connectivity, alternative-drivetrains, replacement-fuels, active accident avoidance…the whole nine-yards. But for me, the most interesting one was entitled ‘Design inside out’, which provided a glimpse of what might appear in a truck cab in 12-17 years’ time. Why did it float my boat? Well because whenever the future of road transport is discussed I can’t help feeling that it’s the operators and manufacturers who are leading the conversation, while the bloke behind the wheel doesn’t much of a look-in.
Maybe that’s because in the brave new world of autonomous trucks, drivers will (supposedly) have an increasingly-subordinate role, sitting in a truck that mostly drives it-self. Frankly, I reckon there’ll always be a need for non-autonomous ‘human’ drivers, and one of the slides at FutureLab summed it up for me.
Today, in Germany, they’re short of 45,000 professional truck drivers, which could rise to as much as 200,000 by 2028. In Blighty, we’ve a similar 45K driver deficit. You’d probably get the same answer from other European Union countries too and if it wasn’t for the thousands of Eastern Europeans who came west in search of better-paid driving jobs there’d be even more empty seats to fill.
So forget about autonomous-trucks for the moment, first Europe has to find a shed-load of new heavy vehicle drivers to drive the fleet it’s already got. Which triggers the $64,000 question, why do so few people under 25 want to drive one for a living? Maybe it’s because they’d rather not to work and rest in a steel box measuring roughly 2.5 x 2.0 x 1.8m—those being the typical dimensions of your average European sleeper cab. So if we’re to attract a new generation of truckies things must change, like making the inside of said box considerably-more attractive to any future wannabe.
For the next generation of drivers, raised on touch-screen interactivity, tomorrow’s truck will be all about the ‘User-Interface’. While I’m not a great fan of such expressions in this instance it’s entirely appropriate. In fact, ‘UI’ was my principal take-away from FutureLab. Listening to Alexander Graf from Mercedes’s department of Digital Graphic Design Realisation, I couldn’t help thinking that the creators of the next generation of truck dashboards will not only come from the traditional centres of automotive design, but the burgeoning world of computer animation and video gaming too. You’ll see why in a moment. However, if you’re a bloke whose dashboard is crammed with old-school shiny analogue dials and mechanical gauges and switches, best look-away now.