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The Real Ice Road Truckers

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Tommy Moore
Tommy Moore
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Automation is all well and good on a safe, sun-lit road. But how does it cope in -20, in the middle of heavy snow drift and unlit, forested roads?

How will automated trucks fare when winter is coming?

We interview Mikael Carlsson. Former CEO of Swedish Logistics firm Kallebäck AB, and now Chairman of Haulage Owners Employers Organisation (åkeriägarnas arbetsgivareförening). Exploring what driverless trucks could mean for the Scandinavian market, and how they can fare in the land of the ice and snow!

Firstly Mikael, a little about you…

My grandfather started logistics firm Kallebäck in 1928 in Gothenburg. Running key routes across Sweden. I started working there in 1977 and became a partner in 1983. I’ve been running the business for forty years until I retired last year to work in an advisory role for the industry as a Chairman of Haulage Owners Employers Organisation.

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What are some of the key challenges for logistics in Scandinavia?

In Sweden some major changes are that we’re seeing increasingly longer trucks and higher gross weight, as much as 34 meters and 90 tons on certain roads. This poses challenges on already struggling routes and I expect this trend to continue.

Fuel costs are always a key factor. We have tested gas-powered trucks and even electric vehicles. The performance of these is still variable and diesel still sadly has a place in the market. Most hauliers are aiming to reduce the number of transports and redact their emissions. A great middle ground has been to use HVO which is a fossil-free fuel for diesel trucks.

Finally, sourcing and retaining the best drivers can be a challenge. It’s a very competitive market, with drivers from all across the EU competing for the same jobs. All companies want the best and so talent and experience are key watch areas.

How do you feel about driverless vehicles?

I try to take a balanced view on what the future could hold for driverless vehicles. I know many people are firmly for or against. I think the Scandinavian market is predominantly in the middle. We have locally Scania and Volvo, both of whom have had great advances in automation.  

My pros and cons include

Pros:

  • Will result in cost savings for customers thanks to fewer running costs on personnel, HR etc
  • Vehicles will last longer, with the reduction of ‘human error’ speeding, or unaddressed wear and tear
  • We can make use of more tactical routes without needing to factor in driver stops, sleeping areas etc
  • Attracting talent / experienced drivers can be an issue and result in delays, which automated vehicles would address easily

Cons:

  • As a former owner of a family business, people are very important to me. I, and many other business owners would be concerned for personnel, even if savings are had
  • I see other costs ahead for things like software updates, tech maintenance, patching etc, we’re all very aware that there will be hidden costs!
  • There is a big concern on liability. If the trucks crash, go the wrong way, have a software malfunction who is liable? The company? The software provider? The manufacturer?
  • Handling the vehicle in extreme weather is a tough ask of a machine. It’s important to consider how the sensors can respond to rain, mud, snow, ice, poor lighting and worn road markings. Or how they can perform in a busy, unpredictable city space with cyclists, toll roads, pedestrians and roadworks

What’s the feeling amongst drivers?

General feeling from the drivers is as you’d expect, negative. Many are worried about losing jobs to cheaper agency labour, let alone to software. Many drivers feel that their skills are hard-earned and cannot be so easily replaced. However, some already benefit from degrees of automation such as park assist, lane drift warnings, advanced cruise control and so forth.

A key problem is that the debate / discourse about driverless trucks happens at the higher levels such as CEOs, CIOs etc. I feel if the topic were more visible and balanced in the publications they read and the sites they follow, perhaps they’d start to advocate some of the changes.

Logistics is like all industries however, in that the balance between automation and skilled human workforces is under more scrutiny than ever.

What would convince you to try it?

Realistically, a pilot together with a truck manufacturer where we loan the use of the vehicle during a test period would be ideal. As it’s exploratory, the cost of the haulier must not be too large, and I’d recommend that the cost must be taken by the manufacturer. Agreements must be signed where the manufacturer assumes all liability in the event of accidents or other damages claims during this test period.

It’s a high-risk industry where reputation is everything. Not many firms will want to assume liability without some surety from manufacturers and a substituted test phase. 

(Photo: shutterstock.com)

The final word…

On the whole, I am positive about using driverless trucks, but only for driving between terminals. I think it will be difficult to have a driverless truck that will deliver goods to a customer or to navigate highly urban areas.

Winters tend to be long and harsh in Scandinavia and this results in many traffic challenges. Often in extreme weather, technology is the first things to fail. Sweden has many stretches of road with poor lighting, few road markings, black ice and substantial ice drifts.

It takes an experienced driver to navigate these and at the moment, I’m not convinced the tech is up to the challenge. But I believe that a hybrid human + automation approach will be great for driver wellbeing / welfare and business productivity. Both of which have a big impact on end consumers and society as a whole.

I see automation as a great next step, but I would want to see a lot more pressure testing to gauge how it stands up to our famous weather!

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