Disrupting trucks

They are known as ‘technology disruptors’ – people or organisations that redefine the course of technology and, in turn, the way that we communicate, conduct business and the way in which we live. These disruptive technologies appear to be becoming more prevalent with each new year and examples abound – smartphones (and before that the now seemingly archaic mobile phone), digital cameras, the Internet of Things and, more recently, Uber ride-share technology and 3D printing. All the while, social disruptors such as Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, Skype, YouTube and LinkedIn have changed the way we communicate forever. For the road transport sector, telematics and vehicle tracking has changed the way in which transport companies schedule and track freight movements.

In the automotive arena, the person of the moment appears to be Elon Musk, with his car company, Telsa. When Telsa’s Model S electric passenger car deliveries began in June 2012, most of the established car manufacturers did not have an electric car in their model range.

Today, just five years on, almost every car brand has one or more electric car offerings, and those that don’t soon will. It took a Telsa to break down the barriers to a mass-produced electric car and allay the fear surrounding ‘range anxiety’. To see the effect that one organisation has had, in such a short time, on a sector as large and stable as the automotive industry has been amazing.

So what are the ‘disrupters’ that we are likely to see in the heavy vehicle industry over the coming years? There has been a lot of discussion about autonomous, driverless trucks, as well as truck platooning.

While there is no doubt that this will happen, the timeframe may be a little longer than that portrayed by the media. Key infrastructure – such as road quality, markings and signs – must be improved and standardised.

GPS location accuracy must be enhanced and V-to-X telecommunications upgraded. There are also issues surrounding existing road rules, insurance, data security and data ownership that must be reviewed and resolved before this technology can be rolled out across Australia.

As with the light vehicle industry, electrification – at least for some applications – is a strong and likely contender for trucks in the foreseeable future. The possibilities for a metro distribution electric truck are obvious. Such vehicles work over a set area and work out of a specific depot each day. Their mileage is, or could be revised to be, within the range of a single charge of a battery pack and the freight that these trucks carry is typically volume, not mass, constrained. This would allow the truck to trade off some of its payload for battery capacity.

There are challenges too, of course. The up-front purchase price of an electric truck would be the most obvious drawback for a truck operator, with the associated running cost savings unlikely to make the payback calculation look spectacular at this point in time. But with battery technology and production techniques improving all the time, that payback calculation will start looking viable in a few years. Who would have thought that electric cars would come as far as they have in the past five years? And if our governments were to offer incentives such as upfront financial rebates – tax concessions such as increased depreciation rates – coupled with reduced road user charges, then we could see a financially viable future for alternatively fuelled and powered trucks sooner rather than later.

There is one thing that I know for certain, whatever the technology, or the timeframe – TIC members will ensure that Australian truck operators have access to the latest innovations in truck technology that are suitable for Australian operating conditions, driving better safety outcomes for all road users and improving air quality, productivity and the bottom line for the operator.

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