World transport trends: Self-driving trucks to drive future freight


Technology and automation will define the future of road transport but significant obstacles stand in the way, such as trade wars and Brexit, according to new research.


The world road transport organisation, IRU, has questioned hundreds of companies from the global road transport industry to understand the challenges and opportunities facing the industry at a time of increasing uncertainty.

Some of the key findings of the report are that:

• The majority of transport companies (57%) in Europe, Asia and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries view geopolitical uncertainty as the biggest threat to their development more than any other issue.
• Technology and innovation are key to overcoming challenges and securing the future of the industry – over three quarters (76%) of transport companies surveyed expect autonomous trucks to become a viable option on the roads within the next decade.
• Operating in an a more volatile and competitive environment, road transport organisations are looking to tech-driven innovation as the wave of the future. Transport companies believe the primary benefit of automation will be boosting productivity (50%), followed by helping to cut costs (19%).

The global snapshot survey is based on interview data from 450 transport companies across Europe, the GCC and Asia.

Findings reveal that transport companies are concerned about macro global issues. Over half (57%) see geopolitical uncertainty as the biggest threat facing the sector – from escalating international trade wars to growing concerns around Brexit. The risk of global recession and the challenge of keeping up with changing customer demand are jointly seen as the second biggest threats to transport companies at 52%.

Umberto de Pretto, IRU’s Secretary General, commented: “The global transport system touches the lives of each of the planet’s seven billion people, from the food we eat to the consumer goods we buy. So it’s perhaps not surprising that many of the issues facing society today are also considered by transport companies to be their biggest challenges. These include some of the main themes that dominate the international agenda, including geopolitics, trade and the environment.”

Tech to provide a safe, successful, sustainable future

Transport companies recognise that developments in technology and innovation will be key to building a safe, successful and sustainable industry in the future. One in three (33%) transport companies across every region believe that improving safety will be the biggest innovation opportunity, while one in five cite automation.

In fact, transport companies are extremely optimistic about the timescales for automation – over three quarters (76%) of transport companies expect autonomous trucks to become a viable option within the next decade; of these, 29% believe they will be a reality on our roads in the next five years. Transport companies believe the primary benefit of automation will be boosting productivity (50%), followed by helping to cut costs (19%).

Breaking through the road blocks to digitisation

Barriers to adopting technology persist – with transport companies citing the major challenges to adopting technology driven innovation as cost and investment (71%), followed by a limited understanding of the range of emerging technologies available (50%).

This suggests that pockets of the industry have yet to embrace new technologies and processes, and that there is still work to do to fix the digital foundations of the industry before technology-driven innovation can be optimised properly.

Gearing up for automation

Similarly, while many transport companies believe autonomous trucks are just around the corner, the reality is that there is still some way to go before they become a safe, secure and sustainable option on our roads.

While the technology itself is becoming ever more sophisticated, there is a risk that it will be held back by the lack of necessary investment in infrastructure.

Boris Blanche, IRU’s Managing Director, commented: “There is no question that autonomous trucks will eventually be transformative for the industry – helping boost productivity, create efficiencies and enhance driver working conditions. But drivers will not become obsolete any time in the future, and in fact the industry must continue to encourage more drivers into the profession. Proper and responsible adoption over time is required, and we must see full cooperation from all industry stakeholders.”

Umberto de Pretto, continued: “For technology to take hold, and for the industry to truly benefit from it, we must ensure we have the foundations in place. This means first getting the basics right, such as full transitioning to digital documentation, improving traceability, security and efficiency. We must work harder to join the dots between operators, service providers, manufacturers and governments to nurture a supportive environment for innovation and digitisation.

“We must also push for legislation and policies that encourage all operators to invest in the technology needed to make these innovations the norm. At IRU, our role is to champion the potential of the industry and promote this cooperation, to empower all operators in the sector to seize the great innovation opportunity.”

Survey Methodology

In collaboration with IRU, Random SA developed a quantitative online survey to target transport companies. The survey was completed by a global sample size of 450 respondents working for a transport operator, transport broker or freight forwarder company in one of the 19 pre-selected countries covering three geographical areas: Europe, the GCC and Asia. The research sample was identified, recruited and surveyed independently from IRU to ensure a broad, robust and representative picture of transport companies.

Quotas were set per country and weighted to reach 150 respondents per region. Additional quotas were set to reach a sample size of minimum 50% CEOs/managers from the logistic department vs. non-managers from the logistic department. The fieldwork took place from end of August to mid-September 2018 and was conducted under the supervision of Random SA, by Asia Research Partners, one of the leading Asian independent research companies, based in India. Random SA and Asia Research Partners are both members of ESOMAR, the leading global insights association to certify that the highest ethical and professional standards are respected by member research institutes. Random SA ran the analysis (SPSS) in-house based on a statistical significance levels of 95%.

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