Automotive & transport

Will Self-Driving Trucks Drive Truckies Out of Work?

Imagine an 80-tonne truck hurtling down the freeway with nobody in the drivers seat. Yes, nobody there at all. Is this the future of trucking? If it is then for the people whose livelihoods depend on being a truckie, the future looks rather bleak.

Fans of the self-driving vehicle claim they can potentially save many precious lives – an estimated 1.2 million globally. But self-driving trucks will put a lot more people than that out of work. In the UK, there are 600,000 registered drivers of heavy lorries. In the US alone there are:

•3.5 million truck drivers
•233,000 cab drivers
•330,000 Uber drivers
•660,000 bus drivers.

As a Ford spokesperson said carefully, “we’re eliminating that wage of that human driver”.

In America, being a truckie may appeal to people who have no college degree but want to make a good income. In 2016, a truckie with 3 years’ experience could earn $US57,000. These people work and sleep in their truck and move 10 billion tonnes of freight a year, creating sizeable revenues for their employers of $US762 billion in 2015.

If there was nobody in the cabs, there would certainly be a cost saving. There could also be massive unemployment.

Of course, self-driving trucks must demonstrate they are 100% safe and do not have the leeway given to human drivers. As one start-up founder commented, safety does not depend on the 99% case, but on the 0.00001% of the time “something crazy happens”.

The transition to self-driving trucks on highways will not happen overnight. There are different levels of autonomy and currently there must be a human working alongside the technology (known as level 3). Level 5 is when there is no human at all and this is where the tech companies and owners of trucking businesses get excited. They look forward to truck robots that can drive all the time, with no need for pensions, sick benefits or holiday pay.

Truckies are afraid, not only for their own future, but for the economic future of the towns that provide petrol stations, restaurants and launderettes. Moreover, self-driving trucks will need very little maintenance (Or it could be more due to greater milleage - Ed).

When Trump said nobody knows America like truckers know America, he said nothing about the robots that could come to know America just as well.

Ref: FT Magazine (UK), 1-2 April 2017, ‘Running out of road’ by L. Hook.
The Guardian (Aus), 16 December 2016, ‘With Trump and Uber, the driverless future could turn into a nightmare’ by J Harris.
Search words: trucks, lorries, truckies, automation, self-driving, safety, income, unemployment
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Kids Taxis (And It’s Not Mum)

In the old days, it was Mum who took the kids to ballet, football, maths tuition, kick boxing, Chinese conversation classes or sleepovers. Then Dad had a turn, when he lost his full-time job. Now there is another kind of taxi just for the children and its name is Uber, Zum, or HopSkipDrive.

Ride-hailing for kids could be a very lucrative market for start-ups who can take the pressure off time-poor Mums and Dads. In America, it is worth at least $US50 billion.

First, parents schedule the rides with a reputable company that has already conducted rigorous background checks, fingerprinting and training for its drivers. Then they give their child a code word, to ensure they match up with the right driver. Drivers then send out alerts to the parents when they pick up the kids, just as couriers do. The parents, as always, foot the bill in advance.

In California, you can pay $US200 a month for a service called HopSkipDrive but this is relatively little for a parent with more income than time.

So far the challenge is to find drivers who can operate in the relatively small window between the end of school and dinner time. This is when demand is highest, but it also means there are fewer hours available in the week to work. For comparison, Uber claims many of its typical drivers (not ride-hailing for kids) work 10 or less hours each week.

Uber is about to launch a pilot program for teenagers under 18. This will put market pressure on other companies and provide a pointer for where ridesharing services are surely going.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 14 January 2017, ‘Baby, you can drive in my car’ by Anon.
Search words: Uber, Lyft, ride-hailing, safety, HopSkipDrive, drivers, children
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China Wants to Crack the Western Market

Just as European carmakers want to penetrate the massive Chinese market, so Chinese carmakers want a slice of the British and European market.

China currently exports around 1 million cars a year but most of these sell in developing markets. One reason Chinese brands have struggled to make a marque (!) is European car buyers demand brand names and quality. Chinese brands are competitively priced but, while this offers a way in, their quality is not high enough for the West. Most would not meet new Euro6 emissions standards.

One Chinese commentator argues Japanese and Korean companies started in exactly the same way with poor quality products, cheaply priced. He says Chinese companies can at least start that way to build market share.

UK has played host to Chinese auto companies for years, including SAIC (the biggest in China) and Qhejiang Geely Holdings. Geely bought Volvo from Ford in 2010 but the relationship between the two companies has not always been harmonious. The Chinese wanted Volvo to focus less on safety and more on making flashier cars for rich Chinese buyers.

The Chinese government is now focusing heavily on electric vehicles (EVs) to deal with its pollution problems - and get into the market early. Car buyers in China are not so impressed, preferring large, fuel-drinking SUVs. But Volvo announced it plans to make EVs in China for international export from 2019. The company will build the vehicles that can be driven in any country in the world.

While Chinese brands are still relatively young in the petrol-driven West, they might take a first-mover advantage in the impending shift to EVs. See story below, Why oil and petrol will tank.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 3 May 2016, ‘Bumpy road ahead for China’s big carmakers’ by SP Chan., 19 April 2017, ‘Volvo announces plans to export China-made electric car’ by J Mcdonald.
Search words: China, cars, SAIC, Geely, Volvo, exports, quality, affordable, electric vehicles (EVs)
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Why Oil and Petrol Will Tank

It is difficult to predict the future of oil or petrol as industry commentators tend not to agree with each other. Pro-petroleum, pro-coal bodies continue to have burning ambitions. But Stanford University economist, Tony Seba, says petrol cars will vanish within 8 years.

Given the current dominance of petrol, it’s hard to imagine such a rapid shift.

An Australian survey in 2016 of academics, government and industry throughout Asia concluded petrol would still be dominant in 2030, followed by hybrids and battery power. But Prof Seba begs to differ. He says people will not only stop driving petrol cars, but they will stop driving completely. (We can see this already in young people.) He thinks cities will ban petrol cars and eventually, even human drivers. People will switch to electric vehicles (EVs) because they are 10 times cheaper to run than petrol cars, have a marginal cost of fuel near zero and run for 1 million miles (1.6 million kms).

He predicts: “mass stranding of existing vehicles”, “$US10 trillion annual revenues in existing vehicle and oil supply chains will shrink dramatically“, and “the most consequential disruption of transportation in history”.

Prof Seba may be right, but it is hard to imagine this will happen so quickly. He says the trend is not driven by climate change but by technology and market forces. The next 2-3 years will see a tipping point, as EV battery ranges go beyond 200 miles and the prices of EVs plummet. By 2022, prices may even fall to $US20,000. (Currently, price is a big contributor to limited adoption of EVs.) Seba's predictions also seem to fall into the usual trap: he ignores human psychology, or so it seems.

His predictions are gloomy for petroleum producers. Opec implies EVs are merely a fringe curiosity. Even so, Saudi Arabia is selling off parts of its oil giant, Saudi Aramco, to fund diversification away from oil. Already a small shift in demand last year bankrupted three out of four large coal mining companies.

Take note Lamborghini drivers: some new EV models will have the acceleration and performance of a Lamborghini but cost 5-10 times less to buy and at least 10 times less to run. Maybe.

Ref: The Daily Telegraph (UK), 15 May 2016, ‘Petrol cars will vanish in eight years says US report’ by A Evans-Pritchard.
Stanford University, May 2017, ‘Rethinking Transportation 2020-2030’ by T Seba and J Arbib.
Queensland University of Technology (Aus), 21 June 2016, ‘Green still a dream, petrol tipped to drive Australian car market in 2030’ by QUT.
Search words: petrol, electric vehicles (EVs), petroleum industry, collapse, oil prices,
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Where History and Future Collide

One way to look at the future of self-driving or autonomous vehicles is to look at the past. It is not so long since people rode horses and the first vehicle was described as a “horseless carriage”. When we say “self-driving” vehicle, we assume a self is needed to drive a car. But an autonomous vehicle (AV) does not need anybody to drive it.

Just as safety was a big concern in the early days of vehicles, so it’s a big concern today. In the early days, the first car accidents were terrible dramas because they had never happened before. Over time we came to accept, albeit sadly, that people die in car accidents.

Telsa took a roasting when somebody died using Autopilot in a Model S. In fact, Autopilot is still in beta form, the driver was supposed to keep his eyes on the road, and it was the first-known death in a self-driving car.

Another concern is the infrastructure needed to support AVs. The same concerns were present when the first vehicles kicked up clouds of dust on unpaved roads. People said the cost of paving roads was too outrageous to consider. Yet today millions are spent every year on building roads that are safe for vehicles. There is no reason to think infrastructure funding will be lacking for self-driving vehicles.

Bentley has already given us a tantalising glimpse of the driving future in 2036. Without the need to drive, the internal layout of its self-driving car offers new opportunities for design. This vehicle has a holographic butler, glass surface on the doors to show information and lighting, and a stone veneer 10th of a millimeter thick. 3D printers have produced structures for this car that are too difficult to mill or cast.

It’s clearly a very luxurious version of a “horseless carriage”. And an example for the neigh-sayers (!) that our vehicles can and will keep changing. The biggest change needed, we suspect, is our attitudes.

Ref: 1843 Magazine (UK), Oct/Nov 2016, ‘Driving lessons’ by T Standage.
Search words: self-driving cars, safety, autopilot, car accidents, Autophobia, infrastructure
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