Can driverless trucks deliver social gains as well as beer?

By Daniel Veryard, International Transport Forum

Convoy of yellow trucks on the roadTrials of automated taxis and buses are becoming a common sight in our cities. At the same time, driverless trucks are already moving containers and minerals around many mines and ports, sometimes without any human intervention at all. And although less visible, trucks might well be the first to cross the threshold of fully driverless operations on our public roads.

There are reasons for enthusiasm and for skepticism about predictions of driverless vehicles being allowed on our roads in the near term. Legal issues are numerous and contentious, the most obvious one being who will be to blame for a crash. Technical issues are also mind-blowing. How can computers armed with sensors match – and eventually exceed – the incredible processing power and intuition of the human brain?

Yet progress is being made on both fronts. Behind the scenes, governments and international bodies are working with industry to adapt regulation and road rules to a wholly new idea of what it means to drive a vehicle. There is a genuine motivation from governments not to stand in the way of the opportunities presented by automation.

Fierce competition

Amazing progress has been made on technical challenges in recent years. Advances in computing power, software and sensor technology have meant that in the space of just four years, computers have gone from dunce to top of the class in their ability to recognise objects and human faces. The same systems that can recognise over 96% of all images of physical objects are now being trained to recognise and respond rapidly to a huge array of real-world situations on our roads.

Fierce competition between incumbent vehicle manufacturers and new entrants seeking to disrupt the market for mobility is spurring large investments in research and development of driverless technologies. A large part of the EUR 44.7 billion that the automotive industry invests into R&D every year is dedicated to connected and automated driving.

On-road tests with prototype driverless trucks are already being carried out. Last year a start-up in the US working on autonomous trucks claimed the first commercial delivery (of beer cans) undertaken with a highly automated truck; the on-board systems handled all of the motorway sections of the journey without the driver monitoring operations. And European vehicle manufacturers worked together with governments to demonstrate the technical and legal feasibility of coordinating trucks from different origins to form automatically connected convoys of pairs and trios of trucks to travel together on a joint final leg of their journey to Rotterdam. Such technology would allow “platoons” of trucks to travel with only one person in the lead truck to be actively driving.

Huge cost advantages

Appetite among operators for the driverless technology is likely to be strong once it becomes available. The International Transport Forum (ITF) estimates that on long-distance routes driverless trucks could be operated with a cost advantage of 30% or more compared to conventional manned trucks. Drivers represent the biggest chunk of operational costs. Drivers are also a constraint on using trucks around the clock – they do need breaks to rest, after all. Making humans in the cabin superfluous means trucks could operate day and night without having to stop, except for refuelling.

The impacts that this transformation would have on driver jobs and livelihoods is not often discussed in policy and technical circles, however. Perhaps the threat of displacement for drivers is given less attention because the implicit assumption is that former drivers will quickly find alternative employment in growth sectors, such as personal services. While this possibility should not be dismissed out of hand, the stakes for drivers and for society at large are sufficiently high for us at ITF to decide that the labour impacts of driverless trucks were worth exploring in detail.

Driverless trucks cover

For this report, we teamed up with three leading transport-sector organisations – representing truck manufacturers, road freight operators and transport unions – to consider whether driverless road freight transport might be developed, allowed and adopted over the next two decades. In particular we wanted to understand what could be done to manage the labour impacts of the adoption of driverless trucks.

Redundant drivers

There are currently nearly 6 million professional heavy truck drivers employed across the US and Europe, according to ITF estimates.  At the current pay and conditions, hauliers struggle to attract enough qualified drivers. Projections tell us that without driverless trucks, around 6.4 million truck drivers will be needed across Europe and the US by 2030, yet fewer than 5.6 million will be available. Many of today’s drivers are nearing retirement age, and women and young people have not been taking up trucking. If these trends continue, driver shortages are expected to get worse – in Europe especially.

Driverless trucks could be used to gradually replace retiring drivers. However, the adoption of driverless trucks is likely to reduce demand for drivers at a faster rate than a supply shortage would emerge: Of the projected 6.4 million driver jobs in 2030, between 3.4 and 4.4 million would become redundant if driverless trucks are deployed quickly. Even accounting for prospective truck drivers being progressively dissuaded by the advent of driverless technology, over 2 million drivers across the US and Europe could be directly displaced by 2030 in some of the scenarios examined.

For businesses and displaced workers alike, large-scale and rapid adoption would be highly disruptive for future plans. The trucking industry is faced with the dilemma of trying to encourage people into driving roles right now, yet doing so would add to the ranks of people who need to be transitioned to new jobs when driverless technology is adopted. And for drivers or would-be drivers, the future roles in trucking may be more interesting, yet there may well be fewer of these jobs.

Disruptive automation

For today’s truck drivers the risks from driverless technology are profound. At a minimum, they may need to learn new skills to adapt to a new working environment in the truck cabin. Or they may lose their job altogether. While truck drivers are typically flexible, self-reliant and able to concentrate for long periods, they tend to be older and with less formal education. So finding and re-training for alternative jobs may not be straightforward, particularly as displaced drivers could face competition for jobs from workers being displaced from jobs in other sectors – after all, trucking will not be the only sector changed by automation.

Alternative job opportunities for displaced truck drivers will be created both in the trucking industry and beyond. However, whether a high-automation economy will generate enough employment and whether these jobs are suitable for displaced truck drivers, are both open questions.

These challenges partly stem from the uncertainty around the timing and extent of the labour market impacts from driverless trucks. Yet uncertainty does not mean we should stand back and let it happen. There are options for giving some control to the people affected. The ITF study proposed consideration of a permit scheme that would allow trucks to operate without driver only if in possession of an electronic certificate issued by the relevant authority (assuming a safety approval process had been developed and passed by the vehicle). The governments could sell such permits to road freight operators at auctions. The proceeds from the permit sales could be used to fund transition arrangements for displaced drivers, such as retraining programmes or, if need be, income replacement payments.

Managing the transition

The number of government permits issued each year could be set in consultation with an advisory board. This “labour transition board” should be temporary and include representatives from labour unions, road freight businesses, vehicle manufacturers and government. It would support the government in choosing the right policy mix to ensure that costs, benefits and risks from automated road haulage are fairly distributed.

The board could take account of various factors to ensure its recommendations maximise the potential benefits for society from driverless road freight. Balancing costs and benefits will require evidence on the evolving demand for driverless operation and developments in the labour market. If demand for the permits was high, permits would attract high prices (or be sold in large volumes), giving strong revenues for active labour market programs that year; more displaced drivers could be supported, suggesting the release of more permits could be a welfare-improving change the following year. Under this arrangement, policy makers would be specifically empowered and informed to make the trade-off.

The challenge of inequality

The approach proposed from the ITF and its partners should be seen as a risk management strategy in the face of an uncertain uptake of driverless technology. It is possible that the transition to automation in the trucking sector and elsewhere will proceed slowly and in an orderly fashion, with market forces smoothly directing unemployed drivers into new opportunities elsewhere. In such a scenario, the government’s intervention in transition would be largely unnecessary. In practice, the measures could be quickly withdrawn by issuing large numbers of permits or removing the need for permits altogether.

However, the rapid and unprecedented accumulation of computing power suggests that we may well reach a point where human labour is increasingly superseded. In such a scenario, the labour transition arrangements may well prove crucial in keeping humans in charge of their own futures before a strong set of vested interests are formed. Embedding this control into the fabric of the transition could make the adoption less risky from a social welfare perspective and more feasible from a political economy perspective. Transition arrangements for truck drivers may also help policy makers understand how to best respond to the broader challenges of inequality and underemployment that are proving difficult to tackle with existing policy settings.


Daniel Veryard is an economist with the International Transport Forum. He led the project on “Managing the transition to driverless road freight transport” which the ITF conducted jointly with the International Road Transport Union (IRU), the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

The economic benefits of improved transport accessibility

 By Lorenzo Casullo, International Transport Forum

Cover photo accessibility RT croppedA transport journey is very often the first step to participating in economic and social activities – from jobs to schools to hospitals. So if we are no promote full participation and inclusion of all citizens, including those with mobility impairments and disabilities, it is imperative to provide accessible transport options for the largest possible share of the population.

Accessible transportation should be at the forefront not only of mobility policies, but also of urban development at large. An urban approach to greater accessibility should integrate transport planning for all at the early stages of design.

Therefore, a key question is: how can we ensure that decision makers (at the local and national level) invest adequate and targeted sums of money to achieve these goals? Likewise, how can we better promote legislation about the rights of passengers and the duties of transport providers so that accessibility for all is maximised?

Filling the gap

This is the challenge that we, at the International Transport Forum, have laid out for discussion with our member countries and partner organisations. And being a think-tank with a focus on economic policies, we have identified one crucial factor that represents a barrier to investment and more far-reaching regulations – namely, the lack of a common approach to identify and value (including in monetary terms) the economic benefits of accessible transport.

Economic Benefits of Accessibility Report Cover w line around


A year ago, we gathered world experts and campaigners in Paris so as to work together towards a clear objective: filling the gap in the theory and practice of accessibility benefits. We produced this report which today stands as a unique compendium of good practice in this field.

We do not wish for our focus on economic benefits to be seen as alternative to the rights-based approaches that the United Nations have successfully rolled out globally, and that numerous governments including those in this room today implement with determination across the world. Rather, our work aims to complement these efforts.

A win-win situation

Our conclusion is that without a clear and robust framework to value the benefits of greater accessibility, these improvements will fail to become a priority – especially when other types of investment (such as to reduced congestion and improved safety) display a large benefits-tag, but accessible transport does not.

Most importantly, assessing the socio-economic benefits of accessibility shows decision-makers a clear win-win situation: investment in accessible transport is beneficial to a large section of the population, and not just to those who are mobility-impaired at the time of planned investment.

Let’s focus on these two key findings – that designing transport systems for those that are less mobile is actually good for everyone, and; that if we do not demonstrate value, accessibility investment will be not be a priority.

More than marginal

First, how do we show that greater transport accessibility is good for all passengers? We need to identify the main beneficiaries. Moving away from a narrower focus on current passengers with some disability, we find that those who benefit also include passengers that are temporarily encumbered in their movements – such as parents with small children, travellers with heavy luggage, pregnant and injured people.

Identifying the beneficiaries of accessible transport

Recent research in the UK and in France gives us an indicative magnitude of this exercise. Studies for the Access for All programme in Britain show that only 1% of passengers at railway stations define themselves as disabled, but more than 5% fall in the “temporarily encumbered” category. Detailed surveys in the Paris metropolitan area confirm that beneficiaries go beyond the less mobile passengers, and include 7% of the population travelling with temporary limitations. For all these travellers, low-floor buses, lifts to stations and simpler pedestrian crossings are of great importance.

An even wider focus on beneficiaries should take into account those who are currently not using transport systems because they are inaccessible to them. For these citizens, better transport accessibility does not mean a “marginally better” journey. It means an entirely transformational impact, providing freedom to access opportunities and services that would have otherwise been precluded. And the number of future beneficiaries is only going to grow in ageing societies.

Capturing the benefits

Secondly, how do we demonstrate the economic value of such investment? We need to adapt and further develop existing economic approaches. Transport practitioners already use those robust approaches in the assessment of economic impacts, and their application to accessible transport is absolutely possible.

Our report is there to help anyone identify and capture these benefits, which include welfare benefits, reduced health and social care costs, and broader economic impacts such as increased participation to economic activities. We also need to add new benefits to the list, including social benefits like reduced stress levels and lower fear of isolation; and private sector benefits such as increased patronage for transport providers.

Identifying and capturing economic benefits

The rare examples of economic valuations undertaken to date demonstrate that the magnitude of potential benefits from improved transport accessibility is often large enough to offset the higher costs. We see this in Britain where the government found a positive business case for investing in accessible railway stations; and in Norway where the National Transport Institute showed that the benefits of making universally accessible bus stops outweigh the costs. In France, a start-up  called Wheeliz is the first peer-to-peer rental website specialising in disability adapted cars for wheelchair users – its growth across Europe is backed by investors.

Whenever you have the chance to do so, outline the socio-economic benefits that accessible transport can unlock. Let’s make this argument to attract more and better investment. Let’s work together towards more accessible and more inclusive cities for all.

Lorenzo Casullo is an economist with the International Transport Forum. This text is based on his presentation at the DESA/DSPD Forum on Advancing Accessible and Inclusive Urban Development for All, held on 14 June 2017 in the context of the 10th session of the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).