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Are autonomous trucks a long-term solution to driver shortages?

Image credit: Pailton Engineering

Self-driving vehicles are closer to providing a way of filling gaps in the workforce than you might think.

There’s nothing new about a shortage of truck drivers. In the US, the American Trucking Association has predicted there will be a shortage of 160,000 drivers by 2028. Similar shortages are present in Europe. In the UK, the impact of Brexit and changing regulations has compounded the problem further, leaving the country facing probably the worst crisis.

Why is the UK hardest hit? The Road Haulage Association has estimated the UK is short of 100,000 drivers, out of a pre-pandemic total of 600,000. In recent weeks we have seen reports of major supply chain issues attributed to the shortage. Wetherspoon’s has been running out of beer, McDonald’s has had to stop selling milkshakes and Nando’s has had to close 50 of its sites. Furthermore, there has been some indication that the worst may be yet to come – Father Christmas himself might find the festive season is disrupted by driver shortages, unless a solution can be found.

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a hand in the crisis. Many drivers from continental Europe went home during the first UK lockdown, as economic activity ground to a halt, and some haven’t returned from their home countries. The pandemic has also led to a backlog of HGV tests – there were 25,000 fewer drivers passing the test in 2020, compared with 2019.

However, the impact of the pandemic should not be overestimated. In the UK, it is estimated a shortage of 60,000 drivers existed before Covid-19 emerged. A survey from the Road Haulage Association lists Covid-19 as a contributing factor, but it is behind many other problems, including poor pay, drivers leaving for other industries and drivers retiring.

Brexit has been an especially important factor. When the UK was part of the European Single Market, foreign workers could access the country more easily. The additional border bureaucracy is a major problem – especially given drivers typically earn by the mile, not by the hour. The declining value of Pound Sterling relative to the Euro also makes wages for EU drivers in the UK less competitive than they were before Brexit.

Several solutions have been offered by government officials and industry representatives. Safety regulations limiting driving hours have been raised from nine to eleven hours. Haulage companies are calling on the government to allow drivers to qualify for skilled worker visas, but the indications so far are that the Home Office is unenthusiastic about this prospect. Some companies are already increasing wages and offering significant sign-on bonuses to attract new drivers.

However, while some of these ideas are welcome, their overall impact will be modest. We need a more viable long-term solution, especially given the likelihood of growing demand for deliveries in the coming years. Is automation, or driverless trucking, the solution we might be looking for?

It has been surprising to see so little mention of driverless trucking in UK media commentary on this issue. In the last couple of years, the world’s largest trucking manufacturers have been partnering with some of the most innovative startups, and progress toward driverless trucking has been greater than many realise.

Few advocates of autonomous vehicles would have predicted this development a decade ago. In 2009, when Google launched its self-driving vehicle project, the aim was to develop smaller vehicles or robotaxis. Now, Google spin off Waymo has partnered with Daimler, the world’s largest trucking manufacturer, to deliver autonomous long-haul trucking.

Although the adoption of this technology will be gradual, the industry is on the cusp of seismic change. According to McKinsey, fully autonomous trucking will be commercially viable by 2027. Daimler is not the only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) in on the act. Traton, Volvo and Paccar have also joined forces with autonomous technology (AT) startups.

The benefits this can offer in solving the driver shortage are enormous. One of the key commercial selling points of this technology is that it will alleviate the restrictions on driver hours. As noted above, one temporary change brought in by the government to address the shortage has been a lengthening of drivers’ hours, from nine to eleven. Imagine the cost savings companies could enjoy if trucks could drive continuously for 24 hours.

Drivers would still be needed, but the industry could attract and retain workers far more easily. The aim would be for a hub-to-hub approach, whereby the longer distances on straight highways between depots are fully automated, while driver supervision is required for the more complex last mile of delivery. The cost savings generated by AT would mean the industry could offer significantly higher wages to drivers while still increasing profits.

To bring this technology to market in the coming years, dynamic partnerships between manufacturers will be required. This will require strong partnerships between truck manufacturers and AT startups, but parts suppliers will also need to step up. While the technology is still in its nascent stages, parts suppliers will be needed to provide mid-level volume orders and bespoke parts, while maintaining the quality of components that are needed for these vehicles.

The prospect of driverless trucking is a light at the end of the tunnel for the driver shortage crisis. This solution may not arrive in time for Christmas, but it is closer on the horizon than most people realise. Working together, the world’s leading truck manufacturers, innovative startups and parts suppliers have been making steady progress toward driverless trucking in the last couple of years. Soon, the technology will be available to solve the long-term shortages the industry has faced for many years.

Roger Brereton is head of sales at steering components manufacturer Pailton Engineering.

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