Thursday, June 1, 2017

So Do Autonomous Freight Trucks Mean More or Fewer Haulage Drivers on Our Roads?  

New Think Tank Report Addresses Free Delivery Myth and Other Issues of Increasing Congestion in Cities

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Shipping News Feature UK – In the past few days we have published two articles with conflicting views on the future of employment in the British road haulage sector. Whilst the International Transport Forum (ITF) article reflects the interests of those employed as drivers within the sector in its study, and is concerned with the employment prospects for those entering the transport industry, the Road Haulage Association piece highlights the desperate shortage of driving staff at the current time. The ITF report considers the onset of autonomous trucks as something which will devastate the numbers employed, a point of view which many in the industry consider more than a little naïve.

The fact that a lorry or van may no longer need a driver for large parts of a journey could doubtless have huge benefits as regards safety, taking the human element from the equation almost certainly will result in statistically beneficial results, as it has with aeroplanes, a fact largely unrecognised by the general public. A truck driver however is responsible for far more than getting cargo from A to B. The load must be checked for quantity and security, the precise address located and any difficulties approaching the destination or en route overcome. The load must then be taken from the vehicle and checked and a suitable POD obtained.

The view that a vehicle can function unaccompanied ignores the fact that most loads are not destined for one point, the parcel delivery driver with 40 or more drops and collections has to walk those pathways, leave those notes and phone in with details of problems. Whilst full blown autonomy might look like a good idea, those close to the industry appreciate the practicalities and generally feel that self-driving trucks will be a welcome addition to the road haulage operator’s armoury. For those industries already utilising the systems to a greater or lesser extent, internal port movements, mines etc. it may be possible to reduce the workforce, how likely is this to occur with regards to general haulage however is much less certain.

Possible solutions to part of this conundrum and the problems faced in urban areas as the desire to ‘go to the shops’ falls away in favour of e-based commerce is covered in yet another report by the Independent Transport Commission (ITC) on future challenges faced by UK freight as increasing numbers of consumers expect to receive home delivery of orders and how those expectations are going to have a negative influence on British cities without government decisions on how the nature of said cities is going to adapt to service those desires.

With e-commerce growing at over 10% annually, the new report, ‘How can we improve urban freight distribution in the UK? Challenges and solutions’, attempts to shine a light on ways to optimise efficiency in urban freight movements as well as reducing congestion and emissions. The study examines the scale of the growing urban logistics challenge in Britain, what it sees as successful initiatives and the development of the necessary tools to drive efficient deliveries.

The report examined the successes to date and the obstacles to further progress through three main case studies based on retiming deliveries in cooperation with DHL; consolidation centres with the London Borough of Camden; and the use of new technologies such as the Starship robots covering the ‘last mile’, something we covered in an article last September.

The report states that with logistics being essential to the functioning and flourishing of a city key challenges for national, regional and local government, alongside businesses, receivers of goods and freight operators, that need to be addressed include:

Urban congestion – light good vehicles (LGVs) are the fastest growing segment of urban road traffic. In London in 2015, LGVs were responsible for 14% of the vehicle kilometres travelled, compared to 10% in 1993 and 11% in 2000. Population growth in cities is also increasing the demand for deliveries. The huge rise in online shopping is sure to see this figure continue to rise.

Air quality – poor air quality in cities is damaging public health and breaching EU limits. High levels of nitrogen oxides and particulate matter have been linked to diesel engines, which are common amongst LGVs. The government should decide which options are available to it to promote the growth of less polluting vehicles. At the moment the impetus seems to be simply punish the road haulage operator for having older equipment.

Noise and the timing of deliveries – freight vehicles often have more powerful and nosier engines than private motor vehicles, and the dispatch and collection of goods often involves noisy operations.

The ‘last mile’ challenge – due to the density of urban housing and infrastructure, the last part of freight journeys is often the least efficient in terms of time, emissions and congestion. It also brings particular challenges including parking, locating delivery points and the need for customer interaction.

The report’s case studies were all drawn from London the ITC are confident that the lessons learnt are applicable to other UK urban areas where more than 80% of the population lives. Dr Matthew Niblett, Director of the ITC, commented:

“People are waking up to the fact that freight produces a large and growing portion of daily road miles, particularly during the peak hours. With online retail delivery volumes growing by 10% in 2016, we need individuals, businesses and public organisations to break out of the ‘free delivery’ mind-set.

“The Government, metro mayors, transport authorities, local authorities and other public bodies need to get on the front-foot to drive change through a combination of actions, including establishing a conducive regulatory framework, interrogating their supply chains, harnessing new technologies, seed funding consolidation centres until the necessary scale is achieved to allow these to operate independently. All the while encouraging behavioural change from all quarters, including suppliers, customers, the logistics operators and staff employed by public bodies.

“For example, TfL estimate that delivery savings of between 30-50% could be achieved by councils adopting three key steps: restricting deliveries to twice a week, establishing a minimum order of £50, and encouraging delivery to door, not to people’s desks. There’s no room for complacency in the public or private sector, if we are to be successful in tackling growing congestion and harmful emissions in urban areas.”

The ITC will be sharing the report with the Department for Transport, all metro mayors, Transport of London (TfL), Transport for the North, Midland Connect and local authorities.

The wider ITC research programme covers a wide range of strategic transport and land use policy issues, including aviation strategy, high speed rail and cities, the impacts of technology on travel and travel trends.

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