The past week has seen headlines dominated by the fuel shortage in the UK. The crisis has undoubtedly reached its current stage due to the panic buying of fuel across the country, but began with BP warning that it would have to temporarily close some petrol stations due to a lack of lorry drivers. Over the past few months, similar stories have hit headlines, with some supermarkets running low on goods – not because of a lack of the goods themselves, but again because of a paucity of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers with which to transport them. This missing link in the ‘just in time’ supply chain model used by the UK was first exposed over two decades ago. The fuel crisis of 2000, while caused by protests over rising prices rather than a shortage of deliveries, brought to light the issues faced by such a delicate supply chain when the flow of constant deliveries is disrupted, something which has not changed since then. What has changed since then, however, is the development of autonomous driving technology. In this article, we’ll take a look at the problems which the current shortage of HGV drivers poses for the UK, and how the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) could potentially provide a long-term solution.
As mentioned, the main issue behind the shortages lies not in a lack of goods or HGVs, but in drivers. Multiple reasons have been put forward as to why this is the case. A large part of the blame has been apportioned to Brexit, with many drivers hailing from the EU no longer permitted to live and work in the UK. The Brexit-related delays at ports also causes European drivers paid by the mile, not the hour, to rethink working in the UK. COVID-19 has exacerbated this, with many European drivers leaving the UK because of the pandemic, not to return. Further blame has been heaped on the shoulders of the DVLA, with a backlog of tests amounting to the tens of thousands – again, with COVID-19 the driving factor – leading to 25,000 fewer candidates passing their HGV license test in 2020 than 2019[JM1] . Finally, and importantly, the IR35 changes which took place in April 2021 have made work as an HGV far less appealing. While intending to cut down on tax avoidance through the use of employees disguised as contractors, the legislative changes have had the effect of making it far less lucrative drivers to work in the UK.
These factors cannot account for the entire shortage, however. The current driver shortfall is estimated at 100,000. Prior to COVID-19, it was still estimated at 60,000, and over the last year, only 16,000 EU nationals have left their jobs working as HGV drivers in the UK. Brexit and COVID-19 are undeniably factors, but they do not account for the problem in its entirety. The simple root of the matter is that HGV driving is no longer an attractive career – and the above factors have only exacerbated this. Wages have gone up recently, but this is merely a case of supply and demand, and if the vacant positions are filled, such attractive remuneration packages will be few and far between. In general, wages are still considered low, hours are long, and conditions are only worsening for drivers in the UK. Truck stops are fewer and fewer, with most filling up before sunset. Washing facilities are getting harder to find, and food stops decreasing in quality but increasing in price – likewise with parking, especially in towns, where there are strict limits on how long a driver can stay before he must move on. In short, HGV drivers are becoming an afterthought and taken for granted. Compare this with driving on the European mainland, where rest stops on motorways are frequent, clean, free and with washing facilities, truck stops are numerous, and roadside restaurants often offer discounted meals and queue jumps. There, HGV drivers are recognised as being there in a professional capacity, keeping the economy running. It becomes easy to see why drivers no longer want to work in the UK, and why the average age of UK HGV drivers is now 55, with no young blood coming in. This, more than anything else, will impact the ‘just in time’ economy of the future.
A potential solution to the driver shortfall lies in AI. When we think of AI, we think of science fiction; of Skynet, I-Robot and the myriad of other fantastical tales on the morality of thinking machines. AI is, in reality, nothing like this. In its present state, it can be defined as a system able to perform cognitive functions generally performed by humans, such as problem solving and learning. This has benefits in multiple areas, such as in the manipulation of big data, or the predicting of social events. It can also be applied to road vehicles. The main problem faced by the development of driverless vehicles has been in the lack of a ‘human element’. A driverless vehicle can use radar and cameras to accurately keep up with moving traffic, stay in lane and obey street signs. What it cannot do, however, is act with the critical thinking of a human when faced by anomalies such as drunk drivers, animals running into the road, or children about to open car doors without looking.
This means that current legislation allows only for a certain level of autonomy in vehicles, up to what has been termed ‘Level 3’. Lane keeping assist, radar guided cruise control, self parking – all are allowed, but the driver must be paying attention at all times and maintain the ability to regain instant control of the vehicle if needed. Despite this, companies such as Tesla, Daimler, Google and Volkswagen Group are pouring vast resources into R&D, developing the next generation of truly autonomous vehicles, awaiting only the legislative updates necessary to produce fully driverless cars. This extends to not only cars, but HGVs. The Tesla Semi is an electric HGV offering ‘advanced autopilot’ - essentially, the lorry driving itself – with the proviso that the driver must maintain vigilant. It is easy to see a world, not too far in the future, where autonomous driving systems are developed to the point that the human element is no longer needed, to be replaced by what will at that point be AI. This AI will be able to perform the key cognitive functions of an HGV driver, without the need to pay it, provide food or washing facilities, go through the rigmarole of registering it as an employee for national insurance and tax... all while being able to only stop to recharge and undergo servicing. The low profit margins of the transport industry would be improved, there would never be a shortage of drivers, and tens of thousands of workers would no longer have to endure a sub-standard workplace environment – and with the dearth of new drivers entering the industry, there would be fewer and fewer humans actually losing their jobs. Autonomous HGVs still have to be monitored, tracked and controlled from afar, which would lead to vacancies ideal for existing human drivers. Finally, and importantly, the UK’s delicate supply chain would have one less link to worry about, and driver-related shortages would become a thing of the past.
Aside from Tesla’s Semi, there are other companies developing similar platforms for the use of AI in HGVs. The exponential increases in processing power across systems means that AI is becoming closer to a reality, able to process massive amounts of data simultaneously to simulate and decide upon the best choice in any given scenario. TuSimple are developing what they call an ‘Autonomous Truck Network’ (ATN) in the American South, built on a ‘Level 4’ (essentially, full autonomy) driverless solution able to provide all the above benefits. They are still operated by a safety officer and engineer, but the physical driving at the development stage is conducted entirely by the AI. Some companies have gone even further. Otto, acquired by Uber for $680 million, delivered a shipment of Budweiser a few years ago, largely driverless. The lorry required a driver before and after it reached the motorway, and a driver was still present in the sleeper cab, but it conducted the entire journey on the motorway by itself. Volvo, long a leader in safety technology, has found its expertise suited to developing autonomous technology; in 2019, it launched a fully autonomous garbage truck, with the driver able to step outside the vehicle and walk ahead of it preparing the bins.
There is a general belief that HGVs are a decade away from having no driver inside them, and the International Transport Forum believes that over half of the existing workforce of drivers could be redundant by 2030. The tipping point is clearly being reached, and it is only a matter of time until AI ceases to be a nascent technology and is implemented at scale to replace human drivers. The benefits of AI in this regard cannot be understated, but with an important caveat. Until AI reaches technical, ethical and legal maturity, there will still be a need to HGV drivers, and shortages will continue if the short term issues facing transportation companies are not addressed. There is only one effective route to address these issues; the cracks cannot be papered over with temporary visas and military drivers. The working environment of the HGV driver in the UK must be improved, through updates to highway infrastructure, easing of tax rules, increased pay and decreased hours. If this requires government subsidies, then so be it, as one final generation of HGV drivers must be trained. AI driven HGVs may be only a decade away, but ten years is a long time to wait with no fuel in petrol station pumps or food on supermarket shelves.