Telematics and IoT software platform Wialon recently welcomed leading futurist, author and film-maker Gerd Leonhard to its annual global conference in Vilnius, Lithuania. MT asked him to predict the road ahead for the haulage industry

Q: What’s the long-term future for long-haul HGV fleets?

A: There are dozens of changes coming. We’ll probably have automated driving with trucks. There’ll be huge daisy chains where the first and last drivers are awake and the others are sleeping. This platooning idea is really difficult here in Europe because we don’t have the size of fleet they have in the US, but it’s possible and being tested. That will save a huge amount of energy. And instead of delivering construction materials like walls and boards we’ll print it using 3D printers. It’s expensive but most things that are expensive eventually get very cheap.

Q: We hear more and more about AI. How will it affect the role of the HGV driver?

A: If you work like a robot, the robot will take your job. In 20 years AI will be able to do most of the routine jobs, like driving, which it can’t do now. The AI can drive the truck but as soon as the truck does anything unusual that’s a no go. It’s solvable but do you want to solve that? If your business is transportation, you will be using a lot of technology to offload work but you’ll still be there. It could end up having a depressing effect on the wage, but it’s hard to say.

Q: So drivers might end up only being responsible for the last few miles?

A: Their job will probably be a lot easier than it is now. At the moment it’s a hard and dangerous job, but a lot of the dangers will be taken out by technology and it will become just plain boring. But when you get to the location you’ll have to navigate the last five miles and you’ll beat the robot easily, especially when it’s about stuff that’s unknown, like pulling into a new building that doesn’t yet exist on the map.

Q: So driver jobs aren’t necessarily under threat in the longer term?

A: It won’t cause widespread unemployment, except in 20 years or so when 50% of the work is done by robots and machines. You may just get paid to pay attention to them or to fix them. It could also result in only working three or four hours a day, but for the same money. ‘Human’ skills are the future, like reasoning, empathy, compassion, understanding and negotiation. Whatever is simple for a human is hard for a computer and vice versa.

Q: How much will AI help reduce the cost of transportation?

A: Dramatically. We can reduce the cost by 50-70% by adding smart logistics - by having new kinds of fuel and energy. Everything that was stupid is becoming smart. And most of those things are pretty stupid. Construction logistics is basically very simple businesses that are not very well organised. AI allows us to save unnecessary trips and predict maintenance etc. It allows us to predict consumer demand and empowers small operators to make decisions on complex questions.

Q: Wialon head of business development Denis Grennikov told conference delegates that only 10% of operators are fully embracing telematics. How much of a challenge is it for service providers to sell the opportunities?

A: That number is probably true for traditional companies. It took [operators] a long time just to embrace mobile devices for scheduling. There are still lots of them using paper. They use Whatsapp to talk and that’s pretty much it. There is a long way to go with digital transformation. We’re only about 10% there and AI is just a part of that. But companies that use this technology will out compete the others.

Q: How much does the climate emergency and the green agenda make this a pivotal moment for transportation?

A: It’s a fork in the road and in terms of climate change we have 10 years to fix it. If we don’t we’ll have global warming of up to 5 degrees which will lead to millions dying. The science behind that is pretty clear. It doesn’t even matter if it’s 2060 or 2070 we’re still taking about our kids’ futures.

It’s kind of a wait and see period in Europe because of the war in Ukraine and Israel v Hamas. People don’t want to touch big projects. The old world is crashing down but the new world isn’t there yet, and people are wondering how soon it will show up.

But we have the tools to do this. We may be looking at producing nuclear fusion in the next 10-15 years which is the cheapest way of producing energy without any toxic environments. That will pretty much solve these problems, including transportation. Once we have that we can generate energy pretty much anywhere, anytime which would solve everything. If we can do that we’ll have unlimited energy. So the problem is really only for the next 20 years. If we don’t solve the carbon question by the time we have nuclear fusion it will be too late and we’ll have to go back and fix it all.

Q: The jury appears to be out on what kind of alternative fuels truck fleets will ultimately run on…

A: There are fundamental things we haven’t solved yet. Hydrogen is a dangerous fuel, it’s harder to transport, it’s expensive. Now we’re building a grid which is like the internet but for energy. There are trillions of euros flowing in this direction. By 2030 a lot of these things that seem like science fiction will become real.

Transformation in Europe is much more difficult because companies tend to be less adventurous than American or Asia. It’s a cultural thing - we like the past. Others are hungrier for change. Germany wants perfection but you can’t have perfection without thinking about the future. Whereas the Americans will invent anything, even if it’s asteroid mining they’ll consider it.

Q: Do you sympathise with SMEs who say switching to zero emission fleets would be cripplingly expensive?

A: The opposite is true. They think it’s more expensive to make the switch. But if you don’t make the switch you just die, so which is more expensive? A lot of companies are misjudging the timing.

Q: Where might road transport be in say 10 years?

A: A lot of local traffic will be regulated and you won’t be able to enter cities in a regular vehicle. It has to be electric. That change is going to be faster than people think. All the measures regarding pollution and environmental control will happen in the next 4-8 years. Also the millennials are coming in and the 50-70-year-olds are moving out and the money is shifting. Millennials are taking on roles as company executives and politicians. The millennials will make it all possible. Technology by itself doesn’t change anything unless we have the right polices. Ultimately when it’s really working it will become cheaper and cheaper, so it becomes cheaper to switch than not switch. It’s the chicken and the egg.

Q: Is the UK government doing enough to support the industry’s switch to net zero?

A: No country is doing enough. Germany and Switzerland are more advanced; it’s easier because people are more positive over the green agenda but the UK is different. Will the UK government incentivise platooning? In Europe it will be part of the directive. In the UK I have no idea.

It will take a long time, maybe 20 years, but at the same time it will become too costly to use diesel with all the taxes and the penalties for driving in urban areas. It’s just like the airlines - sooner or later we’ll pay a carbon tax every time we fly. There’s no way out of this problem.

Q: What do you make of electric start-ups like Volta and Tevva, and to Chinese EV giants like BYD?

A: It could be a lot like Spotify versus the record stores. It took 10 years but now there are very few record stores. When you reach a tipping point everyone switches. People like Amazon are investing billions into decarbonisation and it’ll be for the benefit of the smaller companies who can just licence the technology. But right now technology leads to polarisation. Those that have it are doing well, like Amazon, and the others are having to catch up.

BYD are on a different path to the others. A lot of people are considering buying Chinese EVs. There’s more mistrust but people have adapted to Japanese cars. Most of these systems are becoming software systems where you have the hardware platform and then exchange the software, like Tesla does to create updates and make it simpler for maintenance. So the maintenance of trucks will be automated to a very large degree where the robots come and do their thing because they have less mechanical parts which is a huge advantage for maintenance.

Q: What’s your concluding message to delegates?

A: Act and you become, it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be positive and make the right choices. We’re the architects of our futures, not the victims. Ten percent of your time should be spent purely in observation. The future can happen so quickly that we don’t have time to adjust. Embrace technology but don’t become it.