TRUCKING AUSTRALIA: More than 300 delegates listened to sombre discussions on future trends in road transport.
TRUCKING AUSTRALIA: More than 300 delegates listened to sombre discussions on future trends in road transport. Bruce Honeywill

Conference fears of driverless disruption

GEOFF Crouch is at the podium. This articulate man is the new chair of the Australian Trucking Association and he is delivering the opening address at Trucking Australia, the ATA's conference held in Darwin.

More than 300 people are seated at tables listening to Crouch as he sets a sober scene for the conference.

Safety on our roads is his concern. He talks about the higher level of health checks required with railway workers than with drivers in road transport, with truck drivers in charge of equally lethal machines.

Crouch pushes for upgrading of these health checks with a particular focus on individuals with sleep apnoea, citing that he believes the drivers with this condition are two to seven times more likely to have fatigue related incidents on the road.

His point is that medical practitioners must dig deeper when ascertaining a driver's fitness to drive, far beyond his or her filling out a questionnaire.

Crouch is very concerned with the increase in numbers of suicides in the road transport industry and he tells the audience that ATA will be working with Lifeline to give support to individuals suffering from the spectrum of depression-related conditions in attempt to reduce the number of deaths that have a wide social impact.

"Thirty two drivers will die in the next year, 32 valuable workers the year after that and so on unless we do something about it now,” he said.

Brendan Richards, a corporate advisor to industry for more than 20 years, took on the role as futurist and attempted to describe what the road transport industry will look like in 2050.

"Many of us here remember the mid-80s and it doesn't seem that long ago. That is all the time that will pass before we get to 2050,” Richards said.

HOME TO THE TALK: The Darwin Convention Centre.
HOME TO THE TALK: The Darwin Convention Centre. Bruce Honeywill

To build his picture of the future, Richards explained that the number of players in road transport in Australia hasn't really changed over the past 25 years with about 42,000 active business participants in the industry.

While there has been change with the big corporations, Toll has made 100 acquisitions in the same period, the number of players has remained very stable, expanding to meet the growing requirements of the transport task in this country.

He describes that often in a very competitive industry it is often a "race to the bottom” with rate bargaining and in many cases is not sustainable. All this will change.

He reckons the main emerging areas of change will come through globalisation, digitisation, urbanisation and scarce resources. Undoubtedly the mix is changing and there will be additional pressure to up the ante around safety and ecological issues.

On driverless trucks, Brendan Richards doesn't beat around the bush.

"Autonomous vehicles will change the world.”

Looking across at Fort Hill Wharf from the conference venue.
Looking across at Fort Hill Wharf from the conference venue. Bruce Honeywill

He went on to explain about disruptive innovation and how it can change entire industries in a very short time, using Uber and Amazon as examples in their own fields.

Facing the future, he said, business operators need to be open to the emergence of such disruption in road transport.

The next speaker, talking on developing regulation and government policy into the future is Michelle Hendy of the NTC.

Listening to Hendy, the main subtext of her talk is the competitive mix of the regulator, policy and quasi-regulation development that we have in this country.

We have the regulator that is a cross-border functionary with people who are prepared to get dirt on their hands and then we have the NTC preparing reports for ministers and again we have disparate influence from trucking associations of various ilk around the country.

Richards talked about the disruption that will come to the industry with digitisation of logistics and the removal of middlemen.

It is only a simple extrapolation to apply this principle to bureaucracies and cut it to one, connected institution.

Michelle Handley seems to be centred on a whole list of complex regulations right down to definitions of who or what a driver is.

Unfortunately many saw her words coming as platitudes defending the status quo of bureaucratic regulation, but already the NTC is setting up policy on how to drive with autonomous vehicles and applying regulatory envelopes around a future landscape that is by no mean fixed.

Gary Mahon, CEO of the Queensland Trucking Association, rose from the audience and put a question that following the current direction where a driver now has something like 1600 pages of legislation to know and understand, in a short time that will be 3000 pages.

Mahon said a totally new way of approaching regulation will be found and regulators need to face the fact that there should be disruptive technological advances in compliance, enforcement and regulation policy that the rest of the industry is facing.

The 'Durack Drover' a Kenworth T909 ready for the North.
The 'Durack Drover' a Kenworth T909 ready for the North. Bruce Honeywill

Warren Smith, a very experienced driver-trainer, having spent many years at DECA raised some strong points about driver training and the total inadequacy of our current licensing system.

He points out that while millions of dollars are invested in new technologies and trucks, suitable training must accompany this innovation to ensure that drivers both get the advantage and make the best use of this technology and not fight it.

He calls for higher standards in driver training before licensing.

The conference continues in Darwin as Big Rigs goes to print, but the one outcome is that there are very serious matters concerning the future of road transport being discussed and the participants preparing for the future can be summed up into one word: 'change'.

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