[Korea and the fourth industrial revolution <18-2 Smart Logistics>] Driverless trucks have a long road ahead

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[Korea and the fourth industrial revolution <18-2 Smart Logistics>] Driverless trucks have a long road ahead

The technology for self-driving trucks is already available, but regulations governing liability and concerns about safety are hampering their implementation on roads.

The issue of self-driving trucks might seem equivalent to ongoing discussions about self-driving cars, but the MIT Technology Review notes that the “economic rationale for self-driving trucks might be even stronger than the one for driverless cars” because trucks are linked to companies’ operational costs and human resources management.

The potential savings come largely from “platooning” in which self-driving trucks autonomously follow each other within close distance. They can coordinate their movements as a group, thus cutting down on wind drag, fuel costs and traffic jams, experts say.

There are studies projecting that self-driving trucks will reduce accidents since roughly one in seven fatal crashes are caused by driver fatigue, according to figures published by the MIT Technology Review earlier in the year. The research found that truck and bus crashes killed on average 4,000 people a year in the United States and injure another 100,000.

“People presume driverless cars will be dangerous, but there are many studies with findings that autonomous cars will reduce accidents by eliminating human error,” said Lee Chang-woon, president of the government-run Korea Transport Institute. “However, there still remains the problem of liability if an accident does take place.”

How to assign responsibility for vehicular accidents is still a big conundrum for insurance companies, automakers and governments. With self-driving cars, the role of the automaker includes constant maintenance and after-sales service.

A bigger threat might be the millions of jobs set to disappear once self-driving trucks become common place. “Automated trucks could reduce the demand for drivers by 50 to 70 percent in the United States and Europe by 2030,” the International Transport Forum under the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development said in a report in May. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there are roughly 1.7 million truck drivers in the United States alone.

The situation will not be much different in Korea. According to a report by the Korea Research Institute for Vocational Education and Training released in May, the most endangered job segment will be transportation followed by wholesale and insurance.

There are those who argue that self-driving trucks are necessary in an aging society where more people are shying away from demanding jobs like truck driving. Self-driving trucks already operate in controlled environments like ports and mines, and test runs on public roads are under way in many markets including the United States and European Union.

Hyundai Motor, Korea’s largest automaker, said in May that it would release a partially self-driving truck by 2020 that boasts 30 percent improved fuel efficiency compared to existing cars and is capable of platooning.

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]
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