Driverless possibilities

Hands off: driverless trucks offer the potential of significant cost savings at ports Hands off: driverless trucks offer the potential of significant cost savings at ports

COMMENT: It is no surprise that the PSA Singapore has signalled its intention to introduce ‘truck platooning’ for container transfer between its container terminals.

The age of automatic truck operation along prescribed paths is fast approaching. The driverless operation of trucks along highway routes and other straightforward routes is widely acknowledged to be the most feasible area of commercial application in the next decade.

Driverless car operation needs to be able to operate in urban environments in order to achieve widespread take-up and this is widely acknowledged to be much more challenging technically. The recent incident in Singapore whereby a self-driving car hit a truck seems to confirm this. This particular vehicle was operated by autonomous vehicle software start-up nuTonomy, a spin off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The long distances travelled by trucks on highways or by trucks operating along prescribed paths such as between container terminals or from a bulk commodity producing plant to a port gateway is,  on the other hand, seen not only as highly feasible for driverless operation but offering strong commercial payback.

A lot of drivers are required to undertake inter-terminal transfers in Singapore and many other container terminals around the world. Equally, it takes a lot of truck drivers to move commodities such as cement clinker from the point of production to a nominated port for export.

In Singapore, the average earnings for a truck driver are around $2,500 per month, probably more in the port environment. In the US, the average annual salary for a trucker is $45,000 rising to $70,000 with overtime. The financial incentive to replace truck drivers with an automated solution, albeit initially just for the highway leg of journeys and/or easy routes where trucks regularly carry cargo, is plain to see. The reduction in trucker salaries is expected to significantly reduce operating cost and boost profitability. Add to this the following benefits then the payback factor gets even more attractive:

-        Platooning, the system to be developed and introduced by PSA in which a lead truck is operated by a human driver and then a number of semi-autonomous, unmanned trucks, follow behind, presents the opportunity to segregate drivers into different pay grades;

-        Much reduced expenditure on driver recruitment, training and benefits in addition to annual salary;

-        Automated operation is not subject to drivers’ hours regulations which can facilitate 24 hour operation;

-        Fuel usage cuts in the order of seven per cent; and

-        A reduction in truck accidents due to eliminating the possibility of human error.

How long?

So, realistically, how long before we see the widespread reduction of truck operation? Not long at all seems to be the answer. 

PSA’s programme to introduce platooning foresees a three-year development programme comprising two phases. The first to be undertaken by Scania and Toyota will focus on designing, refining and testing the technology. The second phase will involve trials on a six-mile highway route between Pasir Panjang Terminal Building 1 and Brani Terminal at PSA.

In Europe, 2016 saw some successful platooning style convoys operate to the port of Rotterdam with these being run on a trial basis by a range of truck manufacturers. There were drivers on-board each of the trucks ‘just in case’ but the system, involving two or three trucks that autonomously drive in convoy and are connected via wireless with the leading truck determining route and speed, performed sufficiently well for the manufacturers concerned to commit to further system refinement.

Other trials are underway and a growing number of technology companies are bolstering the supplier marketplace. It’s safe to say with legal and regulatory barriers also being progressively removed it will not be long before driverless truck becomes a day-to-day reality delivering significant economies in the port sector and transport industry as a whole.

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