Drones and driverless trucks: can Australian truckies stave off job threat?
Experts predict autonomous vehicles will save money and lives but drivers say human knowledge and experience are irreplaceable
Frank Black has a simple message for those who predict truckies like him are done for thanks to the arrival of self-driving vehicles: good luck getting tech support in the outback.
For more than 30 years the Brisbane truck driver has hauled goods across the vast expanses of Australia, keeping watch for fast-bouncing kangaroos, felled eucalyptus trees, and other natural obstacles littering remote highways that can run for thousands of kilometres without a single bend.
Morgan Stanley might have forecast that freight operators could save $168bn a year by replacing humans with vehicles that drive themselves with no need for toilet breaks or sleep, and Uber last year may have bought an automated truck firm with the intention to roll out a global service, but Black remains at ease with his job security.
He predicts any freight companies that go down that road in Australia will find their expensive automated vehicles stuck out in the middle of nowhere, awkwardly parked in front of an obstacle that requires human ingenuity to work around.
“The conditions of the road out there, you’ve got to have your wits about you,” he says. “An automated truck would probably have a hissy fit, where a human would realise, ‘OK, I might have to detour off-road into the gully to get around it.’
“Truckies can use their sense of smell, too. If the engine starts to get hot, you can smell the coolant and go, ‘Hang on, something’s going on here,’ [and] pull over before something catastrophic happens.”
The harsh conditions faced by truckers on the job might seem to Black an argument for retaining human imagination but to proponents of automated vehicles they are a case for the opposite: machine intelligence immune to the fallibilities of drivers who routinely make deadly fatigue-related mistakes or resort to amphetamines to stay alert.
It is a theory that has been put into practice in Australia: Rio Tinto has been relying on a fleet of driverless trucks at its iron ore mines in the Pilbara for years, yielding performance improvements of 12%.
A PWC study in 2015 predicted an 80% chance that Australia’s 94,946 professional drivers of road and rail vehicles would be replaced by automation in the next two decades. The prospect has union officials extremely concerned.
The Transport Workers Union national secretary, Tony Sheldon, warns that freight operators need to be “careful not to get carried away with the Jetsons”, arguing that trucks driving themselves in a controlled environment like a mine is one thing, but that significant improvements would need to be made to the technology and to smart road infrastructure before such vehicles could zoom unattended through cities and towns.
He references Fiat Chrysler’s recall this month of 1.2m trucks owing to software vulnerability to being hacked as an example of the kind of dangers that would be exacerbated by self-driving freight.
“There is a serious question about the capacity for this technology to be hijacked by terrorism or some random lunatic,” he says.
“These aren’t washing machines we are talking about. These are machines carting thousands of litres of fuel, tens of tonnes worth of product that could plough through a house.”
The chair of the Australian Trucking Association, Geoff Crouch, concedes the transition to self-driving vehicles “won’t occur in one leap”. Instead he describes a gradual process starting with the autonomous braking technology being rolled out across the industry, and a trial this year in Western Australia of “platooning”, which would see the lead truck in a convoy control the others through vehicle-to-vehicle communication to synchronise speed and braking.
“There will be drivers in the cabs of our trucks for many years to come,” he says.
“The immediately foreseeable future of truck automation won’t involve replacing drivers anyway, and our road network requires considerable work before even current technologies become usable everywhere. In addition, truck drivers carry out a host of other essential tasks, including loading and unloading, checking vehicles and working with customers.”
Crouch says the transition will be one of the talking points at the Trucking Australia 2017 conference in Darwin in June.
Brendan Richards, a partner at the corporate restructuring firm Ferrier Hodgson, will speak there on disruptive technologies.
Richards’ talk will cover a broad range of changes he believes will impact on the freight sector by 2050.
In terms of autonomous vehicles, he predicts self-navigating drones of all shapes and forms will open up routes previously inaccessible to human drivers.
He can foresee an operating system that would run the network, optimising routes and the flow of goods through the system.
Richards also forecasts that drones will be better equipped to provide a nimbler freight service that no longer needs to move bulk goods around, as most things will be produced on-site by 3D printers that only require the delivery of raw materials.
If self-driving vehicles – whether that is lumbering autonomous trucks driving for days without rest or airborne drones zipping across the skies – do push human drivers into unemployment queues, unions want compensation.
Sheldon says the vast numbers of jobs predicted for the scrapheap because of automation require a serious rethinking of how society approaches work.
“When I was a garbo, I was replaced by vehicles that had arms,” he says. “It was hard seeing mates displaced by technology in their 30s and 40s. It was a dramatic, traumatic experience – and there were still plenty of other jobs back then.”
In the case of truckers, he suggests a licensing fee be paid by those replacing humans with self-driving vehicles, to go towards those displaced by the new technology.
It will be hard work persuading truckies like Black to relinquish the wheel, however. He is not even open to a transition period of self-driving technology working in tandem with human operators.
“There’d be no way you’d put me in a vehicle without putting me in control of it,” he says.
“Even in the case of trusting another person, I’d want to get to know them first before going great distances with them. Believe it or not, there are bad human drivers out there too. They should look at better driver training, not these driverless bloody things.”