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Global road transport: Automation will define future but challenges remain

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According to new IRU research, technology and automation will define the future of road transportation. IRU is an organization celebrating its 70th anniversary. They were originally founded as Europe was reeling from the devastation of WW2. Their mission is to facilitate and promote trade and transport between nations as they rebuilt. By building links between countries and making it as easy as possible to transport people and goods by road, IRU was instrumental in helping develop and re-establish societies and economies through the TIR system, which later became a part of the UN Convention.  

The global snapshot survey is based on interview data from 450 transport companies across Europe, the GCC and Asia, and reveals a number of fascinating insights. Among them, the majority of transport companies in Europe, Asia, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (57%) view geopolitical uncertainty as the biggest threat to their development. Technology and innovation are key to overcoming challenges and securing the future of the industry. Over three quarters (76%) of transport companies surveyed expect autonomous trucks to become a viable option on the roads within the next decade.

In terms of macro economic issues and geopolitical uncertainty, the threats are specifically seen as escalating international trade wars, as well as growing concerns around Brexit. The risk of global recession and the challenge of keeping up with changing customer demand are jointly seen as the second biggest threats to transport companies at 52%. 

In a prepared statement, Umberto de Pretto, IRU’s secretary general, said, “The global transport system touches the lives of each of the planet’s seven billion people, from the food we eat to the consumer goods we buy. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the issues facing society today are also considered by transport companies to be their biggest challenges. These include some of the main themes that dominate the international agenda, including geopolitics, trade, and the environment.”

Transport companies recognize that developments in technology and innovation will be key to building a safe, successful, and sustainable industry in the future. One in three (33%) transport companies across every region believe that improving safety will be the biggest innovation opportunity, while one in five cite automation.

Of those 76% who expect autonomous to become viable within the next decade, 29% believe they will be a reality on our roads in the next five years. Transport companies believe the primary benefit of automation will be boosting productivity (50%), followed by helping to cut costs (19%). 

Barriers to adopting technology persist, with transport companies citing the major challenges to adopting technology-driven innovation as cost and investment (71%), followed by a limited understanding of the range of emerging technologies available (50%). 

According to the report, this suggests that pockets of the industry have yet to embrace new technologies and processes, and that there is still work to do to fix the digital foundations of the industry before technology-driven innovation can be optimized properly. Similarly, while many transport companies believe autonomous trucks are just around the corner, the reality is that there is still some way to go before they become a safe, secure, and sustainable option on our roads, as FreightWaves has covered from a variety of angles.

While the technology itself is becoming ever more sophisticated, there remains the risk that it will be held back by the lack of necessary investment in infrastructure. At the opening of its World Congress in Oman, IRU urged the industry to fix the digital foundations of transport in order to fully benefit from automation and other innovations.

“There is no question that autonomous trucks will eventually be transformative for the industry, helping boost productivity, create efficiencies and enhance driver working conditions. But drivers will not become obsolete any time in the future, and in fact the industry must continue to encourage more drivers into the profession. Proper and responsible adoption over time is required, and we must see full cooperation from all industry stakeholders,” said Boris Blanche, IRU’s managing director. 

“For technology to take hold, and for the industry to truly benefit from it, we must ensure we have the foundations in place. This means first getting the basics right, such as full transitioning to digital documentation, improving traceability, security, and efficiency. We must work harder to join the dots between operators, service providers, manufacturers, and governments to nurture a supportive environment for innovation and digitization,” said de Pretto. 

“We must also push for legislation and policies that encourage all operators to invest in the technology needed to make these innovations the norm. At IRU, our role is to champion the potential of the industry and promote this cooperation, to empower all operators in the sector to seize the great innovation opportunity,” de Pretto added. 

For the complete report, click here.