Brexit worries could make UK suitable for automated freight tests
October 2, 2018:
Driver shortages and uncertainty over Brexit could make the UK well placed for developing and deploying autonomous freighting, especially because of its commercially viable road network, according to transport analytics firm Inrix.
The Inrix Automated Freight Corridor Assessment analyses freight volume, congestion and road incident data to identify transport corridors suited for autonomous vehicle (AV) freight based on both commercial viability and the potential to improve safety.
The report comes at an important time for the freight sector and the UK as a whole. The industry, vital to the UK economy, is already suffering a critical shortage of qualified heavy goods vehicle (HGV) lorry operators, and EU nationals are currently plugging the gap. With ongoing uncertainty regarding EU freedom of movement, development of AV freight technology would hedge against a potential labour shock while simultaneously investing in an emerging industry with global growth potential.
With availability of public sector investment in pilot schemes, and projections that the UK connected and autonomous vehicle market could be worth up to £2.1bn by 2035, there is huge opportunity for the UK to position itself as leader in the AV space.
Inrix has identified corridors in the UK best suited for autonomous lorry trials and deployment. The report, which also analyses Germany and the USA, concludes that a commercially viable road network, ongoing labour shortages and uncertainty surrounding Brexit mean the UK is well-positioned to develop and benefit from highly automated vehicles (HAVs).
The UK freight sector is an increasingly important part of the UK economy with the economic value of the industry growing 4% from 2015 to 2016, according to the Department for Transport. But the country faces a critical shortage of qualified HGV lorry operators. As of Q2 2017, there is a shortage of 52,000 drivers, with EU nationals providing significant relief from a declining domestic labour pool; 14% of drivers are EU nationals in Q2 of 2017 compared with 10% in Q2 of 2016.
With the uncertainty of the UK’s relationship with the EU and freedom of movement, HAV adoption would be hedging against a potential labour shock. While automotive freight will need a HGV qualified operative behind the wheel in the short to medium term, successful deployment will eventually free drivers from long haul journeys across the UK’s least safe roads. This will likely see a shift to shorter routes in urban environments, fulfilling the last kilometre of the supply chain.
“Automated lorries are posed to transform freighting in the UK,” said Avery Ash, autonomous vehicle market strategist at Inrix. “Rising labour pressures, future emission regulations and regulatory reform make a powerful economic rationale for deployment in the near term. However, there is uncertainty where deployment is best suited for initial success. Without smart planning, HAVs could clog roads, increase pollution and even result in safety issues. Fortunately, our data analysis shows that there are a range of roads in the UK that are both suitable and commercially viable for trial and initial deployment of autonomous freight vehicles.”
Inrix analysed and ranked corridors measuring more than 160km with high freight volume and low congestion characteristics. The premise being that commercial benefits of current HAV technology are best suited for trips of longer duration and those without challenging traffic conditions such as speed changes, congestion and incidents.
The most viable stretches of motorway occur between major economic hubs at long distances. The most feasible route being the M6 from approximately Manchester to Glasgow, stretching nearly 345km. This corridor performed demonstrably better in the analysis due to very low congestion, being the second most trafficked freight corridor and the third longest corridor in the study. The second most feasible corridor in the study was the A1 running nearly 395km from Sheffield to Edinburgh. Distance and non-existent congestion are the primary drivers in its high score.
The M25 circling London recorded significantly higher levels of dangerous slowdown incidents per kilometre than any other corridor. Its high-risk profile coupled with its freight volumes mean it could benefit most from the adoption of HAV safety technology. The M6 from approximately Coventry to Manchester places second due to its freight volume nearly matching the M25 and an incident rate more than a fifth higher than the next closest. Given eight corridors appear on both lists, deployment of HAV technology could deliver significant returns regarding both safety and cost with relatively low adoption rates.
“This is a fascinating study which starts to shed light on an area which has traditionally been difficult to gather evidence for,” said Mike Waters, director at Transport for West Midlands, the UK’s largest transport authority outside London. “It is no surprise the West Midlands features in a number of the top ten highest priority routes in the UK with the greatest potential to benefit from autonomous freight as we are at the heart of the UK with a huge volume of the country’s product either originating or passing through the region. We have been working with the autonomous technology industry for many years now and have developed the UK’s leading eco-system of simulated, off-road and real world tech development environments. The Inrix report is exceptionally helpful in evidencing an aspect of the necessary tech deployment which we need to see more rapidly accelerated, and it reflects on-going positive discussions we are holding with key players in the industry.”
Ash added: “Road authorities around the world are currently considering autonomous vehicle deployment on public roads. In the first instance, it is vital available data are analysed to identify the roads most suited for both testing and roll out. Doing so is central to ensuring the full benefits of HAVs are realised.”