Supply Chain and Transport

Could autonomous trucks be the answer to the global supply chain crisis?

autonomous trucks are on the rise

Autonomous trucks could transform the global supply chain. Image: Marcin Jozwiak/Unsplash

Kayleigh Bateman
Senior Writer, Formative Content
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Supply Chain and Transport

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  • Autonomous trucks could help solve global supply chain challenges in the face of driver shortages.
  • With older drivers retiring, younger drivers may be attracted to the increased use of technology, says the International Road Transport Union.
  • European companies are expecting to see a 17% shortfall in drivers in 2021.
  • The US currently has an estimated 80,000 open positions for drivers.

The idea of driverless trucks is growing in popularity as haulage firms look for new ways to solve the recent challenges and disruptions to global supply chains.

In theory, autonomous trucks could operate 24/7 to unclog the backlog quickly and safely at ports to get supply chains running efficiently again. Having driverless trucks could also cut delivery costs and carbon emissions. But will automation only accelerate the shortage of commercial drivers by causing more to avoid the industry?

Driver shortages

A survey by the International Road Transport Union (IRU) of 800 road transport companies, across 20 countries found that Eurasia is most affected by driver shortages. According to the data, 20% of driver positions were not filled in Eurasia in 2020. The survey discovered that China was the least affected country last year, with only 4% of driver roles open.

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As part of the survey, European companies told the IRU that they expected to see a 17% shortfall in drivers in 2021. Elsewhere, companies forecasted that this figure would be even higher, reaching 18% in Mexico, 20% in Turkey, 24% in Russia, and almost one-third in Uzbekistan.

Martin Rojas, Senior Adviser for the Americas at the IRU, told the World Economic Forum: “The current driver shortage in the US is about 80,000 open positions, the highest level it has ever been. Based on demographic trends and forecast growth in the demand for freight, this could double to 160,000 by 2030.”

Drivers still needed despite autonomous trucks

“There is a lot of discussion of autonomous trucks replacing commercial drivers,” says Rojas, “and this is likely to occur first in controlled environment operations, such as container yards, potentially freeing up some drivers there to work on the open roads.”

Rojas predicts that for the foreseeable future, however, trucks operating on US highways are “likely to require a human being inside the cab to perform certain tasks involved in picking up, transporting and delivering the cargo - similar to the way airline pilots and airplanes operate now.”

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Automation may attract new drivers

According to Rojas, vehicle technologies that increase automation could have a positive impact in attracting potential commercial drivers.

“Trucks with a greater level of autonomy are also likely to attract a broader demographic population to driving trucks, such as younger and female drivers. Technology and automation advances may even add to the ‘coolness’ factor and help attract young people as drivers.”

He noted that women only make up 7% of the US driver workforce currently: “The industry needs to attract more women, as well as retired couples, possibly as team drivers, who need to augment their retirement funds.

“Finding more drivers is really a ‘lifestyle’ issue, with many factors requiring a broad set of solutions. Trucking companies have invested in newer, more modern equipment to attract and retain professional drivers, such as upgrades to cabin interiors, automated transmissions, improved seating and the latest safety technologies.”

Driver shortage survey 2021
A lack of trained drivers has fast become a global issue, affecting supply chains everywhere. Image: IRU

What’s causing the shortage of commercial drivers?

Rojas stressed that the shortage of drivers has many causes and that “vehicle automation is only one piece of the puzzle” if the industry is to find a long-term solution to the challenge.

He noted that one of the main causes of driver shortages is the high average age of driver populations: “Drivers retiring from the industry are not being replaced by young people entering the industry. The pandemic has accelerated this trend, with older drivers more likely to retire early and training and testing slots for new drivers impacted by lockdowns.”

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Rojas also highlighted tighter regulatory requirements in the US that cause a lack of safe and secure parking and rest areas.

“Commercial drivers are required to pause operations to comply with driving and rest time rules. But finding a place to stop and rest is tough within the tight regulatory requirements,” he explained.

“Add the deteriorating state of US highway infrastructure, increased congestion, poor image and poor treatment of drivers while out on the road making deliveries, all compound into an environment that exacerbates the driver shortage problem.”

In October, the Forum partnered with McKinsey & Company to author a report that investigates the key barriers to faster zero-emission truck adoption. The report, called ‘Road Freight Zero: Pathways to faster adoption of zero-emission trucks’, identifies three solutions that can act as accelerators for faster adoption: new policy frameworks, innovative financing and service models, and coordinated roll-out of trucks and infrastructure.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

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