Transportation on the verge of dramatic changes

Transportation on the verge of dramatic changes

The trend toward computerization promises to create enhanced efficiency in transportation sectors such as the trucking industry and aviation. However, this shift also threatens to take away jobs.

In most supermarkets in London, the check-outs are self-service machines, known by the nifty little acronym SACAT (Semi-Attended Customer Activated Terminal). Instructions on how to place the goods in the bagging area after scanning each item guide the customer through a process that used to require a cashier.

Today, an increasing amount of tasks are carried out by robots, machines and computers. This shift has a long history already, as workers along conveyor belts and in fields and orchards have been replaced by much faster, much less needy machines. However, the range of things that can be automated is ever-expanding and will change the features of several industries over the coming years.

Driverless trucks

The driverless Google car has already managed to drive over 700,000 miles without a single accident, but in all probability, trucks will beat cars in the race for computerized control. Cargo tends to travel primarily on highways: long, fairly straight stretches of road. Few surprises, no pedestrians or cyclists, mostly just hours and hours of monotonous transportation. These features make trucking ideal for driverless technology.

In the EU, the SARTRE programme (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) ran from 2009 to 2012 with great success. It used radar, lasers and cameras to create a platoon of trucks, with one lead vehicle in front followed by several others. Now, the US has started testing platoons, too.

According to Mike Baker, the chief engineer at Ricardo UK Ltd, the lead firm of SARTRE, long-haul trucking “is the most realistic starting point for the commercial adoption of the technology.” He continues: “The long-haul vehicles have the most to gain, both in terms of safety and economic benefits. The fuel savings witnessed by trucks in a platoon has a significant impact on the operating profits of the operator, not to mention the environmental impact of reduced CO2 and emissions.”

Having trucks drive in tight platoons has shown to save significant amounts of fuel: 7 percent total when two trucks were packed together, split between 4.5 percent for the lead and 10 percent for the rear. The overall fuel savings are likely to increase as the truck train gets longer.

A common angle on this matter is the loss of jobs. In 2012, the number of people employed in the trucking industry in the US was 1.7 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is a huge number to deprive of work.

Oxford University scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne made headlines when they published their study, “The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization?” in 2013. According to their findings, 47 percent of the labor market in the US alone is at risk of being computerized out of existence.

But other aspects ought to give reasons for optimism as well. First of all, trucking is not a very pleasant occupation, as indicated by its 98 percent turnover rate annually. It involves long, lonely hours behind the wheel, and sleep deprivation is a frequent problem for truck drivers, despite rules for avoiding it. Second, as outlined in the raison d’etre of the SARTRE programme, using tightly packed trains could save significant amounts of fuel and thus be one way to curb emissions from transportation. Furthermore, cutting costs in terms of both jobs and fuel savings (currently 20–40 percent of the cost of shipping by truck) would make the industry a lot more viable.

Finally, it may not eliminate the demand for truck drivers altogether. A version of a system integrating driverless technology could be to let a human driver take the wheel the “last mile” to delivery, and possibly also have a human driver man the front truck in a platoon. That way, concerns about the computer’s inability to steer safely when roads become more treacherous and traffic more unpredictable are silenced, and the driverless aspect only involves programming a fleet of trucks to follow and copy the lead.

Drone technology in pilotless planes

Not just trucks are likely to lose their human drivers, transportation aircraft can also be controlled by a computer. Although this shift in aviation is likely to happen later than the switch to commercial, driverless trucks, it is a prospect that could turn into reality relatively soon. Obviously, pilotless planes such as drones are widely used for military purposes, but only in restricted areas and conflict zones.

Just as testing is going ahead with driverless cars and trucks, there is a lot of testing of unmanned airplanes for civilian purposes as well. According to the Economist, pilotless planes are probably going to be a common sight before the driverless car. In the US, aviation regulators have been asked by Congress to make sure unmanned aircraft is compatible with air-traffic control systems as soon as 2015.

This has the potential to become a huge new market. Some analysts have estimated that the civilian market for pilotless aircraft and –services could be as large as $50 billion by the end of this decade. The ASTRAEA programme, uniting BAE Systems, QinetiQ, Thales, Rolls Royce, Cobham and AOS, hopes to make pilotless commercial planes a reality in the medium term. The group sees a strong case for introducing the unmanned aircraft in cargo flights and in aircraft operating during hazardous emergencies in the near future.

As in the case with driverless trucks, it will likely change, if not eliminate the demand for pilots, giving them a role on the ground, possibly controlling more than one plane at a time. In terms of passenger flights, they will most likely not be completely without pilots, but arguably, the co-pilot’s place will be taken by an autonomous flight system, leaving just one pilot in the cock-pit.

About Author

Mikala Sorenson

Mikala Sorensen is an Economist with regional expertise in Europe. She holds a first class honours degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of York and a Masters in Economics from the University of Copenhagen. Having interned at the Danish OECD-delegation in Paris and currently working at the Danish Ministry of Finance, she specialises in politics and macroeconomics. Analysis for GRI is an expression of her own views.