The current HGV driver shortage is predicted to last beyond 2022, as reported by The Guardian. However, the UK government has recently introduced changes that could mean that drivers who hold a non-urgent licence can be classed as key workers during a pandemic. To know more about this issue, below are the important developments and information you need to know.

The Situation

As the latest chapter in the UK's supply chain woes, the current HGV driver shortage disrupts wholesale food deliveries, cancels bin collections, and causes panic buying of fuel. Despite the possibility that the country will overcome this temporary issue, the driver shortage is making the viability of logistical transportation on the road in the long run questionable.

An intuitive long-term solution to the future shortage of HGV drivers consists of taking the drivers completely out of the picture. The technology behind self-driving cars, which can also be applied to HGVs, promises to transform how we transport people and goods. However, despite improvements in automation technology and operational techniques, self-driving vehicles continue to be distrusted and hard to build.

Technology serves as a bridge between the human and technology in this case: teleoperation, or the use of automation and remote supervision instead of a behind-the-wheel driver. This approach is being tested as a more realistic, less distant solution to crises in road logistics in the coming years.

HGV solutions that are intelligent and autonomous have been in demand for many years. Several projects, studies and feasibility attempts have been launched to explore the impact that these nascent technologies will have on the environment, businesses, and society at large. Some of the trailblazing attempts to do this include the creation of road trains which will significantly reduce HGV emissions and other logistical concerns impacting the effectiveness of drivers.

This situation involves the lead vehicle in the platoon controlling all the vehicles behind it, maintaining a necessary gap, and altering it when other vehicles pass between them. Even though trailing vehicles require less human input, they still leave the driver in the loop - and the cabin. Even so, that driver would still need to receive HGV training, which doesn't help because of the shortage of drivers.

Remote-controlled lorries

Remote-controlled HGVs have the potential to save workers' time and labour. In the late 19th century, electrical engineer Nikola Tesla conducted radio experiments with an unmanned torpedo boat. Remote control systems are not new - they date back to the 19th century. Toy-sized vehicles have been using the same technology for decades. Of course, controlling a road vehicle with a remote control won't be the same as controlling a shoebox-sized car. While maintaining an element of remote human control, the system will take advantage of advancements in vehicular automation. As a result, HGV teleoperation has the potential to realize the benefits of automation - in terms of scale and reliability - while also enabling human vigilance, thereby improving the safety of HGV traffic.

The teleoperation solution would still require some training, but it has two key labour benefits. It is feasible for the human overseer to be located anywhere, which drastically reduces disruptions when drivers arrive at the wrong place at the wrong time. Additionally, it's possible that, as technology improves, trained drivers may be able to oversee more than one HGV simultaneously - thereby requiring fewer human operators.

North-east England is currently testing Teleoperation using a 40-tonne HGV over a 5G communication network. Several cutting-edge technologies in telecommunication and vehicular teleoperation are being harnessed in this £4.8 million project funded by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. A combination of such emerging technologies would improve route planning, reduce emissions, diminish labour movements, and make travel safer.

Nissan test track in Sunderland is currently using the teleoperated lorry to test a "last mile delivery" system - delivering goods on the shortest leg of their journey - in support of manufacturing logistics. The logistical chain is a perfect example of how human effort can be reduced at its most intensive stage.

Bringing this vision to reality, Wilko recently invested £3 million in StreetDrone - another key partner on our teleoperated HGV project. By the end of 2023, StreetDrone hopes to deploy this technology on UK roads, although initially using smaller vehicles than HGVs.

Safety and security

This reliance on technology presents its challenges, however. Security threats are chief among these threats to the system, since it is vulnerable to attacks, as any digital system is.

Integrating 5G communication, a remote control, and a vehicle into one system allows manipulating the system. Those who develop teleoperated HGVs know they must guard against ransomware attacks by ordinary criminals, or more sophisticated attacks against critical infrastructure by aggressive nations.

Developers, academics and researchers are collaborating to minimise the threats posed by these issues. There is no denying that these threats flourished for a reason - insecurity. The need to address and understand their nature is paramount to creating countermeasures. The role of developers and those engaged in HGV security development is to understand the ways, means and occurrence of these cyber attacks. From there potential defences, safety and security regulations are crafted to be released to the public.

Public distrust is a major obstacle to deploying remote-controlled HGVs, just as it is with self-driving cars. It is already a concern of the general public that autonomous vehicles will be able to navigate safely on the roads; consider the potential for them to be hijacked or deactivated, and distrust could be a major hindrance to their adoption.

There is no doubt that technology will play a significant role in future solutions to our transportation and logistics problems, including the shortage of drivers. In addition, if full autonomy is too uncertain of a solution for our society, perhaps our best option is to "tele-operate" our way into the future: automating where possible while still keeping a sharp eye on the road ahead.