Autonomous trucks could solve current food shortages and help to reduce the spread of COVID-19 across Australia according to Andrew R Timming, deputy dean of research and innovation at RMIT’s school of innovation.
Commenting on the continued food supply shortages caused by the response to the Omicron variant, Mr Timming said that the use of automation was a key way to relieve pressure on an industry suffering from a lack of available labour.
“Already we have the technology to deploy self-driving trucks that can transport goods across the country with zero COVID-19 risk,” he said.
The use of driverless trucks would be welcome news across the supply chain as a significant number of employees are affected by COVID. In South Australia, an entire abattoir was shut down after 140 workers tested positive to COVID-19, while as many as 40% of employees in the dairy industry were either off sick or in quarantine.
Fredrico Collarte – CEO of LiDAR tech company Baraja, said that autonomous vehicles could help to ease pressures on sectors that rely significantly on the prompt movement of fresh produce.
“The key benefit is you can get fresh produce to the market sooner, so the shelf-life can be longer.”
Driverless Truck Technology on the Horizon
In America, the highly competitive race to commercialise driverless trucks could mean that long-distance routes will be operated autonomously in the not too distant future.
Texas – the US epicentre of remote vehicle development – passed laws in 2018 to allow autonomous vehicles on the road. With vast distances to travel and an increasingly smaller pool of truck drivers, the industry has realised that going driver-free is the way forward.
According to Embark Technology, driverless fleets would drop the cost per mile from $1.76 to $0.96, save 10% in fuel costs, increase annual per truck revenue by 300% and reduce delivery times by 40%.
“Because Embark-powered trucks don’t need to rest, we will empower our carrier partners to move foods faster than human-driven trucking at a fraction of the costs,” said Embark CEO Alex Rodrigez.
“We know the technology we’re building together can maximise fuel efficiency, help drive adoption of zero-emission trucks on short-haul routes, and reduce food waste,” he added.
Australian Mining Industry Already on Board
Autonomous trucks aren’t new to Australia, with the domestic mining industry the leading global user of driverless technology. Currently, with 575 trucks – the largest fleet in the world – the sector is growing with BHP expecting to add another 375 trucks in mines in Western Australia and Queensland. Rio Tinto will add 100 autonomous trucks across their Pilbara operations this year.
Six Australian mines currently have an entirely autonomous fleet, including the Christmas Creek iron ore mine with 74 trucks.
Mining companies have reported a raft of benefits from driverless vehicles including increased operating hours. FMG – the company that owns Christmas Creek – reported a 30% increase in productivity while Rio Tinto saw a 20% jump in productivity gains and a 20% savings in operating costs.