Only autonomous vehicles can save the Australian transport industry

Brendan Richards, Partner, National Sector Leader, Transport & Logistics

Much has been written about autonomous vehicles as a threat to the Australian transport industry – how they will take thousands of jobs out of the sector and lead to the death of truck driving as a profession. At the same time, much has been written about the benefits of autonomous vehicles and how these more than offset the job losses that will inevitably follow. Indeed, KPMG’s recent publication, ‘Australia’s future transport and mobility’ opines that autonomous vehicles will play a major role in realising Australia’s vision.

The benefits tend to be categorised in one of three ways – safety, lifestyle and economics.

Safety is always couched in terms of less accidents, injuries and deaths. There is general agreement amongst all the experts (Australian and International) that around 90 percent of accidents could be eliminated thanks to advanced driverless vehicle technology. When you consider that just the human error road crashes cost Australia $27 billion every year, that is no mean feat.

Lifestyle is always an acknowledgement of the differences autonomous vehicles would make to our society. Fewer cars on the road, enhanced mobility for everyone, space freed up by the elimination of the need for car parks, and extra money in the pocket because car ownership and its associated costs are a thing of the past, all make for a radically different world that impacts everything from discretionary spending to housing to city design.

And that brings us to the economic benefits. According to research conducted by the Australia & New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative (AVDI), we could expect to see economic benefits to Australia in the vicinity of $95 billion per annum. That is made up of savings of $80 billion from avoiding crashes and congestion plus a further $15 billion by grabbing a mere 1% of the global intelligent mobility market which, in turn, would generate about 7,500 new jobs.

All of this is great but none of it alters the fact that transport jobs and, in particular, driving jobs are gone. Except that they wouldn’t be, because drivers are already gone.

This is the thing that everyone seems to miss. Australia is running low on truck drivers. Transport companies can’t find the people they need to meet the growing demand to move freight and the whole industry is at risk of collapse unless a solution is found.

One in five working drivers in Australia are already at retirement age. The average age is near 50, less than 20% are under 30, and women make up a mere 3 percent of the workforce. The fact is that, in Australia, no one wants to be a truck driver.

When you consider that projections have the amount of freight moved by truck in Australia doubling by 2030 and, that alone, would require an increase of 150 percent in recruitment to meet the demand, this is a serious crisis. We have a $40 billion road transport industry with an urgent skills shortage. That is not going to be solved in time. There are too many factors counting against attracting people into the industry:

  1. Under the law, you can’t even drive a B-Double until you are 25 so forget school leavers.
  2. The Government has cracked down on 457 Visa’s so you can’t bring drivers in from overseas either.
  3. The image of truck driving as hairy men, wearing singlets, wrestling with an enormous stick shift in an old and dusty truck (however inaccurate these days) is still strong and turning people off in droves.

The irony is this. Modern trucks are more technologically advanced than most cars. Most of that technology involves autonomous features such as lane change assistance, emergency braking and GPS tracking. Far from being the death knell of Australian transport, autonomous vehicles are the only thing that can save it.

They are the only thing that will attract people into the industry. Rather than making existing drivers redundant, they will simply solve the skills shortage we already have and allow, through a process of attrition, our aging human drivers to shuffle off into their already planned retirement.

The real benefit of driverless vehicles is not safety, lifestyle or economics. It’s rescuing the one industry that is connected to just about every other Australian industry – transport.

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