The era of the Executive Truck Driver is upon us

Why driverless fleets could need highly paid specialist truck drivers

Truck fleet owners are getting serious about driverless trucks. The benefits are obvious. Fuel costs and driver salaries combined make up almost two-thirds of a fleet’s cost base. Autonomous trucks will remove the need for almost all drivers, and allow ‘platoons’ of trucks to drive within just a few metres of each other. Fewer drivers will slash salary spending, and ‘platooning’ cuts fuel costs by up to 10%.

The truck industry is one of the most dangerous in Australia, with 15 times the number of deaths among drivers as there are among employees in other industries. Automated truck technology promises to improve safety levels.

Driverless platoons are forecast to hit Australia’s roads by 2025. Where will this technology leave today’s truck drivers? Will truck drivers become redundant overnight?

Truck driver jobs will be lost, but the impact may be less than expected

At the end of May, the International Transport Forum said that autonomous vehicles would reduce freight costs, slash exhaust emissions, and improve road safety. The cost of these benefits, it said, would be seen mostly on driver jobs. It expects between 50% and 70% of truck driver jobs to be made redundant. Such job losses in Australia would need to be managed, but may not impact truck drivers as much as they might expect.

The freight market in Australia is expected to grow by 26% over the next ten years. If this transpires and there will be no change in the way that truck fleets are operated, this would create a need for another 25% more driver jobs across the country. By dovetailing the introduction of driverless technology with the increase in freight, job losses wouldn’t hit so hard. Also, there will be retirements which will also reduce the technological impact. Some drivers will decide to move to other industries.

In summary, while the International Transport Forum may be right about the scale of truck driver jobs lost, the impact on drivers currently in the industry is likely to be a lot less than they might think.

In Australia, truck drivers will have new opportunities

Driving in Australia is very different to driving in Europe or America. The first place we’re likely to see driverless trucks in convoy is on major roads and highways. As the technology becomes proven, truck fleets will probably seek to extend service to the Australian Outback.

It will present a whole new set of challenges to the technology employed: animals running into the paths of trucks; heat; and roads that are more like farm tracks, taking their toll on engines and tyres.

Truck convoys could be hundreds of metres long. Loads might include livestock, fuel, or hazardous materials. Dust is a problem for other vehicles that want to overtake.

As GPS technology, truck-to-truck cameras and links, road and traffic and truck sensors increase in ability and fleet use, driverless convoys are likely to become the norm.  But a driverless convoy may be a step too far. Enter the Executive Truck Driver.

What might the Executive Truck Driver of the future be?

It’s likely that the lead driver in a driverless convoy will have more responsibility. They’ll have to control the convoy, using in-cab technology to monitor how each truck is performing.

The Executive Truck Driver of the future is likely to be more technologically experienced than the truck driver of today, and enrol as a multitalented supervisor. They will need to be ready to take control of the truck and pursuing platoon when it’s needed. They will need to obtain information about roads and weather and liaise with customers. They will also control maintenance on the road, and ensure that engines and tyres are in top condition for the journey ahead.

The Executive Driver will need to input reams of data into onboard computers, allowing sensors to adapt to immediate and upcoming conditions and environments. In short, the job of a driver is changing.

How fast will platooning take off in Australia?

The software that will allow trucks to drive together in a close convoy is being tested as I write, and it’s being improved almost daily. Truck manufacturers are preparing for rollout within a couple of years. The truck industry is likely to force through change. Lower fuel and employee costs, as well as better on-road safety, will encourage firms to change sooner rather than later. Uptake of platooning is likely to snowball.

Eventually, it’s probable that most if not all trucks in Australia will be driverless. But as we transition to this state, the best drivers will be required to lead the charge and platooning convoys. And they are likely to be very well paid to do so.

To find out about our comprehensive services for truck owners and fleets, contact Darra Tyres. Never be stranded on roads in and around Brisbane again – even when most of your trucks are driverless.

Keeping your business and fleet safely on the road,

Kevin Wood

About the Author

Kevin has been at the forefront of the tyre industry for over 20 years. Kevin's speciality is in industrial and commercial tyres including the management and upkeep of fleets. Kevin has worked with vehicles his whole career from painting, mechanical, suspension and panel beating he has also spent time in the Australia Army as a driver. He has driven all size of vehicles throughout his career so understands the demands placed on drivers.