CIED ended in February 2019. This website is now archived and will be no longer updated.

Automation in the freight industry: expectations and experimentation

The Clean Growth Strategy published by the UK government in October 2017 set out – as one of its 50 key policies and proposals – to position the UK at the forefront of research, development and demonstration of Connected and Automated Vehicle technologies.

Automating our transport system is expected to reduce congestion and air pollution, increase social inclusion by opening up access to cars for everyone, improve road safety as well as the efficiency with which we use our road system.

Are these expectations realistic? Is automation really the panacea to our transport problems? Who should be involved in creating these visions about an automated future?

These were some of the questions explored at the ‘Urban Freight Futures: Innovation and Experimentation‘ workshop on 10 May jointly organised by the Transport Studies Unit (TSU) and the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED).

Stakeholders representing a wide range of sectors including the freight industry, the finance sector, local government bodies and trade associations got together to discuss trends around automation in the freight industry and to hear about the latest research from Dr Debbie Hopkins and Dr Tim Schwanen.

Expectations: hype and disappointment?

A key theme of the workshop was around expectations. Expectations are important because they guide activities, attract interest and foster investment and they provide legitimation for a new technology.

Goods mobility is changing with a growth in van transport due to e-commerce. Automation is already present in the industry with so-called micro-automations, such as automatic gears, automated braking and lane assist. Trials of innovations such as platooning have taken place, but overall, the process of automation is at its early stages.

There is a hype around automation in the UK. Cycles of hype and disappointment can exist around new technologies and the transport industry is not immune to it. The level of expectation around the technology rises quickly, followed by complication and a level of saturation which then leads to disappointment.

The researchers showed that there is a certain level of caution around automation in the freight sector with expectations quite divergent. Participants at the workshop were also of the opinion that the situation in ten years’ time won’t be very different when it comes to the urban context. Manufacturers are likely to use it in low risk environments, but it won’t be widespread.

The participants also discussed the policy environment around automation and the current short-termism that characterises decisions. Policy makers expect the market to take over. Dr Schwanen pointed out that Electric Vehicles (EVs) have been a classic example that the market will need to be manipulated.

However, the framing of automation as a race might leave us unprepared for unintended consequences and shocks.

Experimentation: by whom and for who?


Experimentation with automated vehicle development and public testing and demonstrating has a long history. The focus of these experiments has primarily been on passenger transport but recently there has been a growing interest in freight. Public demonstrations are an important part of the experimentation process. But how public are they in reality? How managed?

The researchers found these demonstrations to be lacking in inclusivity and openness. They argue there is a limited space for alternative visions of the future and roles beyond the ‘future technology adopter are rarely included.

Participants shared experiences of trials where the public was more involved and argued for this to be a practice that should be widely adopted. To create a future transport system that is more resilient to shocks and more democratic, we need to involve the public and avoid a top-down approach.

The role of the driver

Finally, an important theme that emerged during the discussions was the role of the driver. Working conditions in the freight industry are precarious and there are serious concerns around driver retention and recruitment. Increasing levels of automation will slowly make the role of the driver redundant.

There is a perception that drivers will become like captains of a ship, monitoring the ship’s functions. Most stakeholders at the workshop strongly disagreed with this idea. The role of a truck driver is far beyond driving and deskilling drivers can negatively affect the way they perceive themselves and their pride in their work.

Participants discussed the impact of automation on employment and taxes, as well as the question of liability over accidents. A key point to emerge is the need to engage with people whose jobs are impacted by automation.


Find out more about our project on ‘The energy implications of automated and smart freight mobility‘.

Read Dr Hopkins and Dr Schwanen’s latest paper on ‘Automated Mobility Transitions: Governing Processes in the UK‘.