IAA 2018: Drivers would remain even when there are autonomous vehicles on road

  Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

From a vantage point, the advent of autonomous driving technology could look to be a favorable scenario to the transportation industry. However, on the larger scheme of things the technology would have the prerogative to address three important questions – the future of drivers, vehicle data security, and legal liability on the road.

Acacia Smith, manager of environmental affairs at IRU, the world road transport organization spoke at the IAA 2018 on how the industry could confront the challenges and persist with automation. “We took part in a study last year with ITF, where we looked at the role of drivers and the outcome was that there will be job losses. But this is just one estimation and it is really difficult to say how many job losses and when this will happen, as we are hearing mixed messages,” she said.

Startups working in the automation space have repeatedly quelled concerns that arise with regard to job losses. For instance, Embark, the U.S. autonomous driving startup, has stated that drivers already in the industry would not be put out of business. One of the primary reasons for this would be the exponential growth of driver demand in the future as the economy expands – estimated to be hovering around 230% by 2050.

“Slow rollout of the technology, of course, depending on the different situations – some are more complex than others – would help, and local drivers will still be needed for the last-mile deliveries,” said Smith. “At the same time, the transport operators that we represent have already started to use automated vehicles on some dedicated routes. So I think the result from this is that we really need more time to see on how this is going to evolve.”

However, Smith also iterated on how automation could help drivers in the longer run. Assistive driving technology that is now in relevance could ease work-related stress, and could reduce fatigue for drivers who are behind the wheel for long hours. She maintained that though driverless vehicles might reduce demand, it is not a situation that would happen overnight and would not be ideal for all vehicles across different hauling scenarios. Either way, autonomous vehicles could act as a solution to the ever-widening driver shortage problem.

“The big question is, can automation help to bridge the gap by making jobs more attractive. The job of the driver of the future would be less about just driving the vehicle, but more about monitoring and supervising the system and taking control, if the system is not responding as it is supposed to,” said Smith. “We need to avoid putting people off the sector and ensure there is a smooth transition. As a stakeholder, we need to really steer and influence this transition through legislation and training.”

Another significant concern is with data privacy and general ownership of data. Regulations need to be set in place to identify the stakeholders who would have access to data – for instance, the OEMs and insurance providers. Also, liability is a huge question, with the line defining it being blurry at the moment, as it is unclear on who would take the blame in case of an accident.

Smith raised questions on when vehicle inspections and software updates would occur, once the vehicle is completely autonomous. And with driver assisted automation, it is also critical to analyze how easy the process would be for drivers to take control if something goes wrong on the road.

There also is the concern of general road users adapting to autonomous vehicles driving amongst them. “There will be mixed traffic for a long time, and the awareness of road users is absolutely key. We do expect new accidents to happen as a result of automation, while of course, overall accident numbers should go down,” she said.

IRU is working towards promoting the exchange of best practices, and is trying to encourage discussions on future mobility patterns, training needs, and trends across different industries. “We are trying to inject the voice of the operators at both the legal and technical level. There certainly would be benefits to come from automation, and we look forward to these benefits,” said Smith. “That being said, the role of what an operator does will change through new business models that come into the market. Automation in itself, fundamentally changes the idea of what a transport operator provides, and so it really comes back to the point of managing this transition.”

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Vishnu Rajamanickam, Staff Writer

Vishnu writes editorial commentary on cutting-edge technology within the freight industry, profiles startups, and brings in perspective from industry frontrunners and thought leaders in the freight space. In his spare time, he writes neo-noir poetry, blogs about travel & living, and loves to debate about international politics. He hopes to settle down in a village and grow his own food at some point in time. But for now, he is happy to live with his wife in the middle of a German metropolitan.