The shortage of truck drivers in Australia means autonomous vehicles may take up some of the slack.
Australia’s mining industry has been at the forefront self-driving vehicle adoption. In November last year, Cat hauled its one billionth tonne of coal and iron ore across its global fleet of self-driving vehicles. Rio Tinto has 71 AHS (autonomous haulage system) trucks operating across three Pilbara mines, moving around 20 per cent of their material.
But by far the biggest changes in equipment come under the hood, especially with new safety measures. For example, Daimler appeared at the Consumer Electronics Show in January to show off its new lane-keeping technology and its innovations around trucking fuel.
New power generation
We’re beginning to see some ambitious advances in truck power. Electric-powered vehicles are back in the news with both major political parties trumpeting electric vehicle (EV) policies. It’s a welcome announcement for Victoria-based heavy vehicle EV manufacturer SEA Electric who relies on sales to the US. Electric trucks are in their infancy in Australia and the company has a few garbage trucks on the road in Perth and Melbourne.
SEA Electric CEO Tony Fairweather told the ABC that Australia’s take up of battery powered electric cars was disappointing and called for more government support to back companies in the electric car space.
“We are absolutely the least-progressed developed market in the world in terms of supporting and incentivising EV uptake,” he said.
Currently, the vast majority of trucks are powered by diesel. But the push to lower greenhouse gas emissions is driving innovation, including the attempt to engineer hybrid solutions between batteries and alcohol-based fuel. Currently, the battery weight and sourcing enough lithium for full-scale production represent bottlenecks in development.
Meanwhile, Scania is set to roll out its new-generation truck in Australia – a Euro 6 fitted with two natural gas tanks, designed for a low carbon footprint and reduced total operating costs.
But innovation isn’t limited to power systems and self-driving technologies. Brand-new technologies are proliferating to address all manner of vehicle-related challenges.
For example, US startup company Peloton is trialling a new type of safety and efficiency innovation called platooning. It works in the same way cyclists do, with those in the rear of the group taking advantage of the frontrunner’s slipstream.
On an open stretch of highway, platooning is activated through a wireless signal. The second truck mirrors the speed, braking and accelerating to stay within a set distance of the first truck. It is partially automated, with a driver still sitting behind the wheel.
If the first truck suddenly brakes hard, the second truck will mirror its actions and the company claims that the second truck can save up to 10 per cent on fuel costs.
In Victoria, companies are trialling platooning to overcome driver shortages and increase load sizes.
New technology means that the face of transport is also changing.
The Australian Industry Standards (AIS) released a report on the skills shortage in transport and logistics, which means that truck drivers will need to upskill in data analytics.
“The industry is experiencing an increasing use of automated and semi-automated vehicles. Autonomous vehicles have been successfully trialled across Australia,” he says.
Nearly all truck companies have rolled out a telematics system – a dataset that does GPS tracking, and measures driver behaviour in terms of braking, fuel efficiency and speed to gain greater efficiencies and eliminate fatigue.
One of the new breed is an artificial intelligence computer-vision system called Seeing Machines. It can monitor the road and driver at the same time to alert the driver through an alarm system when fatigue or distractions become an issue.
It’s clear that there’s plenty going on in the world of heavy vehicles. For all our futuristic talk about high-speed rail and last-mile delivery, it’s still the case that most freight in Australia is moved by truck – so it’s great to see the pace of high-tech innovation picking up.