Road haulage is a crucial part of UK Plc, employing 220,000 people and contributing £11 billion a year to our economy. That’s why it is worth paying attention when Parliament’s Transport Committee starts talking about a shortage of lorry drivers, which is exactly what they did with the publication of this report in the summer.
The Government and industry groups agree that the haulage industry is currently short of around 45,000 drivers. A major cause is recruitment: according to the Road Haulage Association, the country needs 35,000 new drivers every year, but trains only around half that many.
Is this a terminal problem? Far from it. The Committee recommends that the industry improves pay and conditions to make the job more attractive, as well as working with insurers to reduce the cost of insuring young drivers. It calls on the Government to work with employers to improve apprenticeships and raise awareness of the haulage sector as a career option among school pupils, college students and jobseekers. The MPs also argue that the Government has a role to play encouraging better roadside facilities for lorry drivers.
How tech can influence trucking
And it’s not just government policy that can help. Technology has a role to play too. This new article in MIT Technology Review introduces Otto, a San Francisco company currently developing autonomous lorries.
The aim is not to take drivers out of the equation entirely, but rather to allow them, essentially, to put their trucks on autopilot during long stretches of motorway driving. That way, the driver can get some much-needed sleep or catch up on paperwork without having to stop.
The truck would then automatically pull over at the end of its motorway stint, letting the driver retake control. This makes Otto’s job simpler: no need to worry about the tougher programming challenge of safely navigating city streets.
Otto’s founders hope this will help them blaze a trail ahead of the driverless cars being developed by Tesla, Google and the big car manufacturers. ‘We can show autonomy sooner rather than later, showing the path for the rest of society,’ says Lior Ron. Indeed, their trucks have already test-driven themselves across tens of thousands of miles of US highways.
One person whose eye has been caught by Otto’s work is Travis Kalanick. He’s the CEO of Uber, which bought Otto last month, and is now sharing research between San Francisco and Uber’s autonomous car programme in Pittsburgh. The tech upstart keeps on expanding.
This can only benefit the haulage industry. Not only are politicians now looking out for its interests, but so too are the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley.