In the ATLaS research project, the scientists investigated which level of automation is favoured by users, which driving forces or hurdles they see for the use of automated technologies in road freight transport and which cornerstones and framework conditions are relevant. In addition, the project will investigate the effects of different scenarios of automated and networked driving and develop recommendations for action. Although the study relates to the German market, it is likely to be valid for many industrialised countries.
The project does not end until mid-2019, but a first interim result has already been published: If the logistics and freight forwarding companies are right, the driverless, networked truck could soon become a reality. If this technology is to find its way into freight transport, however, it is urgently necessary to set the course for this – i.e. to initiate the necessary legal framework and possible infrastructure investments.
Platooning is losing traction
In the project, the scientists interviewed managers from logistics companies. The results show that future users of automated trucks do not want a semi-automated vehicle in which the driver’s cab functions as a “mobile office” and the driver can still perform tasks such as administrative work while driving. This is the scenario that has been discussed so far in connection with platooning. Platooning means that several vehicles, each with a driver in the vehicle, drive at very short intervals of about ten metres behind each other, controlled in real-time by V2X communications. This saves fuel and reduces the driver’s workload. For logistics companies, however, this scenario would only be worthwhile if only one driver (in the front truck) actually steers the entire train.
The acute shortage of drivers at logistics and forwarding companies, the relatively high costs of the driving task and the need for efficient processes in an already highly automated logistics world speak against this. Rather, companies need a fully automated means of transport without a driver. Platooning is only relevant for the logistics industry to absorb peak loads, the interviews hint.
In contrast to the platooning scenario, the scientists see the so-called system traffic between depots and logistics centers or their motorway access routes as areas of application for fully automated trucks. Here, the transport is highly standardized and is therefore suitable for the introduction of the new technology: The goods are transported daily between the depots and warehouses and typically arrive within 24 hours from the sender to the recipient. Wage costs for drivers account for around 30 to 40 percent of transport costs. While it is almost impossible to earn money by having the driver providing services to the customer in system traffic, such services are very lucrative for logistics companies on the first and last mile. For this reason and because the journeys there are less standardized, automated and networked trucks on these routes have little chance of asserting themselves in the medium term.
The project team also investigated various scenarios in which freight traffic is handled with fully automated trucks on motorways. In a first scenario, it was assumed that automatic driving was only allowed on motorways. For the journey from the depot to the motorway, manned trucks would still be used. This requires special areas on the motorway where the drivers park their vehicles. From there, the automatic journey on the motorway starts. In order to build these areas, corresponding infrastructure investments are necessary. At the same time, however, truck parking spaces along the motorway would no longer be required due to the elimination of driving time regulations and could be returned in line with demand.