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The king of the road wants to stay in the driver’s seat

Is automated driving a chance for the transport industry? (Photo: Fotolia / Jaroslav Pachý Sr.)

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Enno Pigge
Enno Pigge

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In an exclusive preview of the 2016 Continental Mobility Study, we reveal what the industry in Germany and China thinks about automated driving for trucks.

The truck drivers of today: They are the kings of the road – and, after many years on the throne, only want support from assistance systems. This could be one interpretation of the results of the 2016 Continental Mobility Study.

But let’s start at the beginning: It is extremely important for an automotive supplier to look outside the box. Today “the box” means the current development and production contracts from across the world. However, in order to offer the best solutions for safety, intelligent connectivity and reduced emissions, a frequent look at the bigger picture is also required. Among other things for the ever-shorter development cycles: Which factors will sooner or later challenge existing and new technologies? What are the needs that are perhaps only currently known to some extent which will have to be met in the future? Which basic conditions need to be considered in the long term? The Continental Mobility Study should help to provide answers to these questions. The goal: to gain an in-depth insight into the wishes of the end-users of our industry and the opinions of industry experts – anonymously, but with quality assured by using respected market research companies.

This year, Continental wanted to collect valid background information regarding the world of logistics experts and fleet operators, as well as the perceptions of truck drivers – incidentally, 91 percent of the logistics experts surveyed by infas in Germany believe that competition for highly-trained drivers will get tougher. In China, this form of competition doesn’t seem to be seen: here "only" 74 percent expect tougher competition for drivers. A total of 299 interviews in Germany and China were carried out for the study – with diverse results from the world of the road transport industry, which is shaped by efficiency and cost pressure.

Driving towards the future - but what to expect? (Photo: Fotolia / Jaroslav Pachý Sr.)

For the logistics industry automated driving is in part still far beyond the horizon

If cost pressures and the challenge of finding qualified drivers are and remain central to the logistics industry, then one of the main findings of the Continental Mobility Study will be surprising: With regard to the automation of the commercial vehicle sector there is a certain degree of scepticism.

  • Only 26 percent of German logistics experts currently consider automated driving (in its entirety) to be important. For the Chinese logistics experts the figure was 33 percent.
  • Only 31 percent of logistics experts in Germany think that automated driving is appealing to drivers. In China this figure is 35 percent.
  • The opinion of drivers in Germany is more sceptical still: only 15 percent state that automated driving provides them with added value.   
  • Only 9 percent of drivers expressed a desire for automated driving. 

Even in the face of enormous cost- and competitive pressures in the industry, only 28 percent of the surveyed logistics experts see automated driving as an opportunity. In China almost half of respondents do (47 percent).

Platooning could revolutionize commercial transport (Photo: Daimler AG)

The expert opinion – highly differentiated

Despite these results, to some experts automated driving is “no longer far away”: “Partial automation already exists and that means a substantial increase in efficiency.” One fleet manager is sure that: “Platooning will arrive in a relatively short amount of time. This will lead to a better use of traffic infrastructure, to increased safety and eventually will help with the acute shortage of drivers.” “Platooning is a top trend in which we are investing. It is no longer in the experimental phase.”   

Other experts clearly see the opportunities more sceptically: “Platooning with electronic drawbars is not something that I can imagine in practice. And the liability issues remain completely unclear. The underlying legal structures have not yet been developed. These are also important for the new relationship between drivers and trucks, as well as for the relationship of automated trucks among one another.” At least engineers from the various manufacturers and suppliers are now working on the technical challenges with high priority. At the same time, talks are being held with law makers – in order to promptly introduce the electronic drawbar into the series.  For Continental, these results are a clear indication that the industry must do much more regarding the explanation of how automated driving can reduce costs and emissions. On the other hand: perhaps fleet operators have until now shied away from making the necessary investments in the future for such systems – after all, it is important for the industry that a new system pays off within one to two years. Perhaps the noticeable underlying scepticism also stems from the fact that within the transport industry, the benefit and reliability of new technologies is at the heart of their business and therefore must be proven to be 110 percent before fleet operators deploy them.

Driver assistance systems are often well received (Photo: Daimler AG)

Driver assistance systems are the launch pad for automated driving

Among logistics experts, the benefit of safety systems has certainly already been proven. “Driver assistance functions such as lane change assistance or object detection are widely implemented with us. The goal: maximum support for drivers through technology," says an expert from the industry. “Everything that exists and has helped solve problems for cars should also exist for trucks,” stipulates another. A further expert expands: “From radars to automatic braking functions. Everything that increases driving safety.” And: “Drivers should not be able to switch them off.” 

66 percent of German transport experts in fact believe that driver assistance systems are necessary and desirable. What is noticeable here is the different view of Chinese logistics experts, of which only 30 percent consider driver assistance systems to be desirable. It was already apparent from the car-focused Continental Mobility Study that those drivers who already use driver assistance systems are also more willing to use automated vehicles. Here the gradual introduction of legal requirements for driver assistance systems aids distribution: Finally, two-thirds of drivers already appreciate the reliability and ease of use (both 66 percent) of assistance systems. Markedly: 72 percent of drivers with at least 30 years of professional experience would like more assistance systems. The launch pads of automated driving are therefore already in the starting blocks.  

If 55 percent of the surveyed truckers love their job due to the freedom and control it provides, then the industry has to do everything it can to ensure that this freedom and the wish for more support come together in the best possible way. Certainly: the opportunities and the appeal of the trucker profession will improve again with the introduction of driver assistance systems and automated driving. The dangers of the job will also be reduced with the help of electronics. In addition, many tons of diesel could be saved through platooning. And finally, the possibilities to see more of the world with your own eyes – a key factor for many truckers in their job choice – won’t be reduced with the latest technology. The king of the road will also be needed in the future – and will be allowed to continue to keep the control if they want to.

Will hitting the open road still be an option in the future? (Photo: Fotolia / rasica)

The key results:

  • The Continental Mobility Study shows that only 20 percent (21 percent in China) of fleet operators want automated driving. Drivers with more experience want driver assistance systems.
  • As platooning based automated driving offers big advantages in terms of traffic safety and efficiency, the industry needs to increase its efforts here: There is a clear need for education.
  • Satisfaction is the best launch pad for new technologies. When it comes to existing driver assistance systems, the majority (66 percent) are happy with their reliability and ease of operation.
  • A quick return on investment is important for the transport industry, which is shaped by cost and environmental directives. (In Germany, 82 percent of fleet operators (65 percent in China) want a return on investment within 1 to 2 years). 

You can find the full Continental Mobility Study here.

Is automated driving a chance for the transport industry? Will technology make the job of the truck driver more appealing? When will automated driving for heavy-duty trucks arrive? Join our discussion!

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Enno Pigge
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