Given TAPA’s 20th Anniversary Conference in London and its look into the future of supply chains, the British Government has come up with a timely plan to commence trials of truck platooning on UK motorways in 2018 by providing over €9 million of funding to test out semi-automated truck technology.

This follows similar trials in other parts of Europe, the Americas and Asia Pacific. German truck maker Daimler AG announced last month that is has received permission to test new ‘platooning’ technology on U.S. roads, for example, while, in Singapore, both Scania and Toyota Tusho are participating in trials.

The UK trials will see up to three wirelessly connected heavy goods vehicles travelling in convoy, with the acceleration, braking and steering all being controlled by the lead vehicle. Announcing the project, the Department for Transport said each lorry will have a driver in the cab ready to take control at any time if needed.

Right now, all the focus is on safety and the general public, in particular, are likely to take some convincing of the concept. Motoring organisations in Britain are also concerned such truck convoys will obscure road signs for other drivers and could make it more difficult to join or leave motorways. Others argue that reliable technology could significantly reduce the 90% of all traffic accidents caused by human error and the one million fatalities a year on roads worldwide. A further three million people reportedly die prematurely as a result of traffic emissions.

Nonetheless, for those in the transport and technology industries, the whole issue of autonomous vehicles (AV) is a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’. In the longer-term, the benefits of this technology will include improved fuel consumption, reduced emissions, and lead to better air quality and less congestion. On an even more practical level, driverless trucks will help to counter the fact that fewer and fewer people see HGV driving as their preferred career move, a major cause for concern given the ageing population of drivers employed by most transport operators. With no new generation of drivers to call upon – 45,000 vacancies are reported in Germany alone - the demand for AVs is going to grow, and at an ever-increasing pace.          

In London, TAPA members will be invited to participate in a panel discussion looking at the use of new technologies in the supply chain, and autonomous vehicles and truck platooning will be high on that agenda.

Sven Bosch, Corporate Senior Security Manager at DB Schenker and a TAPA EMEA member, is one of the panellists at the Association’s London conference. In May, DB Schenker signed a cooperation agreement with vehicle manufacturer MAN to develop networked truck convoys. Truck platoons will be tested for several months in an authentic road traffic environment as part of DB Schenker’s regular business operations. Another first is that instead of test drivers at the wheel, the vehicles will be steered by professional truck drivers. During the test phase, due to start in Q4 2017, DB Schenker and MAN will operate platoons on the “Digital Motorway Test Field” on the A 9 motorway between the DB Schenker branches in Munich and Nuremberg. Each platoon will consist of two trucks.

Speaking when the agreement was signed in Munich, Ewald Kaiser, Chief Operating Officer Freight at DB Schenker, said: “Networked and autonomous driving will revolutionise transport in the future. On signing this contract, we are not only consolidating our cooperation with MAN, but also corroborating our claim to be the driver of digital business models in the interests of our customers. Platooning provides us and our customers with a solution to the demand for completely transparent, as well as faster and more eco-friendly transport processes. We are confident that these tests will deliver information about the specific potential for increasing efficiency in real operating conditions over a prolonged period.”

It may be 2021 at the earliest before such technology is commercially available, and, some say, 10-15 years before driverless trucks will be widely deployed. A key factor in this will be the rollout of 5G fifth generation mobile networks, which will start to gradually roll out across Europe from 2020. 5G is necessary to address current latency issues that prevent comprehensive connectivity and to also provide a back-up where 4G networks can be overloaded.

Drivers looking for a long-term career in the transport sector, however, shouldn’t be too concerned. Even when all the technology and networks are in place, truck drivers will still be required to carry out deliveries in urban areas and for more challenging assignments. Many operators are keen to point out that, on many occasions, drivers are the first line of defence and provide considerable experience which often helps to avoid or mitigate risks. They also provide vital surveillance and alerting functions. In the absence of drivers, more physical security and technological features will need to be designed into trailers, which will offset some of the labour cost savings.     

In the intervening period, TAPA and its members will have sufficient time to adapt the Association’s Trucking Security Requirements (TSR) to incorporate any risks associated with removing drivers from commercial vehicles. High on this list will be interference, not only much-publicised hacking risks but the simple ability of criminals to be able to halt AVs in remote areas as AVs will be programmed to avoid collisions by slowing or stopping.

Vigilant asked Sven Bosch for his views on the new technology from a supply chain security perspective:

What are the supply chain security benefits of driverless trucks/platooning?

“The first advantage of driverless trucks is that not having a driver means that internal involvement of a driver in a cargo crime can be ruled out as a possible modus-operandi. Another advantage of both platooning and driverless trucks is that it enables companies to optimise transport flows, enabling a continuous flow. As we all know; “goods at rest are goods at risk”; so keeping trucks moving using intelligent software and algorithms based on live traffic information means less stops; which reduces the risk of being exposed to cargo crime.

“Take a look at self-parking cars; in the future we might have trucks that can automatically be directed to the applicable dock-door for (un)loading. This means that the driver can already take his rest and does not have to wait for an (un)loading slot. This reduces waiting times and the driver can start driving sooner and with a clean-tacho (full rest). This means he can drive further and longer, reducing the risk exposure.

“In the more distant future; one might even expect that driverless trucks are not subject to the same driving-time legislations that currently apply to the human driver. This will ensure an even more continuous flow of goods and reduce the level of security risk still further. Also, platooning/autonomous driving can optimise the arrival/departure times of trucks to avoid the common traffic jam of trucks waiting at the customer/hub/receiver for unloading. As we all know, the direct vicinity of the loading and unloading address is one of the most dangerous places to park. Reducing waiting times will also reduce the risk of theft.”

What are the potential supply chain security risks of driverless trucks/platooning?

“Cybercrime and possibly terrorism; we all know how trucks are being used as weapons. Imagine terrorists hijacking trucks with laptops instead of guns. It is clear that this needs to be thoroughly thought over. Whilst on the one hand this is a risk; it can also be used as an advantage as, when trucks are well designed using new technologies, it will become much more difficult to steal a truck because of the use of fingerprint identification, remote triggered disabled truck, etc.”