An Initial Model for Autonomous Trucks in Australia?

Updated with long distance vehicle announcements


A recent announcement in the United Kingdom has the government allocating 8.1 million pounds to a truck platooning trial:

Semi-automated truck convoys get green light for UK trials

Platooning is essentially like bicycle pelotons in road races like the Tour de France, where riders get sucked along in the slipstream. Until you have actually participated in one, you do not realise how much easier it is to ride in the group. I knew that intellectually, but the experience is something else. For trucks this means less congestion and less fuel use. In order to achieve these results the artificial intelligence and sensing systems that controls the trucks have to be much better than human drivers so that the trucks can drive closer together.  In the UK trial the speeds and steering will be controlled by the lead vehicle.

Total autonomy for vehicles on the road is known in the industry as Level 5 autonomy. This is where vehicles can control themselves in all road conditions. We are a long away from this technologically, so the trucks in the trials will have human drivers who can take the wheel at any time. The problem with this is that driver attention will naturally wane and this may impact on reaction time. In this trial this may be dealt with by periodic blocks of time where the human driver must take command of the truck – whether there is a need or not.

The medium term adoption pathway here in Australia may be different due to the road conditions and distances travelled. Here in Australia the situation for truck driving is a little different than the UK. There are much larger travel distances between the major cities, and the major inter-capital highways are less crowded. This is mirrored in the United States, especially in larger states such as Texas and California. This means that the adoption process of the technology may be significantly different.

There are a couple of technology issues in the adoption pathway that is chosen that flow into these sorts of differences and how we might choose to adopt the technologies.

Firstly there is a significant debate in the autonomous vehicle technology world about the approach of using maps versus continuous sensing. As humans we can navigate an unfamiliar terrain because our sensing and vision systems are good enough to recognise and continually process information at a level that is useful. The technology in autonomous vehicles is still not good enough to achieve that yet, and this is where mapping comes in. If an autonomous vehicle has stored in its system a map of the territory it is about to navigate, it only has to compare the environment it is encountering versus the map. This significantly reduces the job that needs to be done, reducing the pressure on the technology. In the long run it is likely that onboard vision and sense making systems will be good enough to do without maps. In the short term  having maps significantly improves performance. The timing of these changes, and the implications for strategic competitive advantage are critical when thinking about strategic decisions for individual companies, and what the overall outcomes might look like (see: Winner-takes all effects in autonomous cars for an excellent discussion on this).

Secondly, at what point will we be comfortable with no driver in the vehicle, and will this be at Level 4 or Level 5 autonomy. At Level 4 autonomy the vehicle can drive itself but is limited either by geography or conditions. This means that while the driver can be removed there needs to be some sort of geofencing, or emergency failsafe systems. For example trucks on the highway may automatically pull over if rain levels go beyond a certain level, affecting visibility. If adoption pathways can be achieved at level 4 rather than level 5 then adoption will occur more rapidly as the technology will not have to be as advanced to achieve the outcome.

So if we can build a model in a specific area of trucking where there are less complicated driving challenges, and mapping  makes a significant contribution we can create faster adoption. Which takes us back to the highways between capital cities in Australia.

In Australia 18-19% of total road freight movements are inter-capital freight movements (Truck Industry Fleet Report 2015), and there has been significant improvement in those roads over the last 20 years. For example once we get outside of the major urban areas of Melbourne and  Sydney the road between the two cities is excellent for trucks. An early adoption model for autonomous truck movements in Australia might start with transfers between Melbourne and Sydney and look like the following:

  1. Autonomous trucks operating the full distance between the two cities except for the last 30 kilometres (plus or minus) in each city.
  2. A truck changeover system on the outskirts of both cities where either the truck takes on a driver, or the prime mover is changed over to a non autonomous prime mover and driver. This is necessary in an early adoption model because the challenges of driving in the major cities are significantly higher than on the open highway.
  3. A cooperative mapping effort coordinated by the Federal Government where the road is mapped in its entirety.
  4. The formal mapping is supplemented by all autonomous trucks contributing their mapping and sensing data to a central system to continually update the maps. Therefore any new hazards or changes such as roadworks are rapidly incorporated into the maps that all autonomous trucks use.
  5. Autonomous truck support centres where the control of the truck can be taken over by a remote driver in the case of difficulties such as problems with sensors, or road conditions which are outside of specified parameters.

Many of the pieces of such an implementation pathway are already in place or soon will be. Autonomous trucks have been trialled in several locations around the world, and we already have remote control of mining systems (Mining industry looks towards a new wave of automation ,  Rio Tinto: rolling out the world’s first fully driverless mines ). We also have remote control of drones for military operations.

Around the world the trucking industry is seeing problems with an ageing workforce, with trucking jobs being seen as unattractive by younger generations (Wheels not in motion: Australia running short of truckies). A system as described above can solve some of this problem by:

  1. Autonomous trucks can operate for more hours than human drivers can, increasing efficiency of truck use and reducing overall demand for drivers.
  2. Increasing the attractiveness of trucking jobs. In many cases the long hours and time away from home are significant factors reducing the attractiveness of driving a truck. If the long distances can be handled by autonomous trucks, and the drivers can go home to their families at night then the job becomes more attractive.
  3. A truck driving job is more interesting, as the easy parts are taken over by autonomous trucks, and the more difficult driving conditions, unloading operations, and interactions with customers are covered by human drivers in short haul operations.

Eventually most trucking operations will be carried out by autonomous trucks If we want to address the shortage of current workers, reduce fuel consumption for long haul freight, and possibly reduce fatigue related accidents, a model which accelerates early adoption should be trialled.


Proterra has announced an 1100 mile (1772.2km) trip of its Catalyst Bus on a single charge. (Proterra Counters Tesla’s ‘Beast’ Of A Semi With 1,100-Mile Range Electric Bus). In addition Tesla will announce its new Semi truck in October. With distances between Melbourne and Sydney of approximately 865 km, Sydney to Brisbane of 928 km, and Melbourne to Adelaide of 725 km this seems to put the intercapital freight market in the sights of autonomous electric trucks.

I am writing a book on autonomous vehicles with Dr Chris Rice of the University of Texas Austin. It is called Rise of the Autobots: How Driverless Vehicles will Transform our Economies and our Communities. Stay tuned for more excerpts as we finalise the book.


Note: The featured image comes from: 











What Jobs Will Stay?

This week I had two very different experiences which had me thinking about the future of jobs. On Tuesday I was invited to a workshop host by Perpetual Trustees with the Stanford Centre for Philanthropy and Civil Society. I was there isn my role as a futurist and a venture philanthropist (I am a partner at Social Venture Partners Melbourne  See :  Summary Video). The subject for the session was Digital Technologies and Democratic Theory and involved a range of not for profit organisations, commercial businesses, and startups.

A lot of the discussion was on the effects of technology on our wider society, and our political systems in particular. Rob Reich and Lucy Bernholz from Stanford took the temperature of the room on whether we are optimists or pessimists about the effects and capabilities of technology. I was surprised by the fact that the overwhelming majority of the room was optimistic. I placed myself as pessimistic. I think that there is a lot to like about the capabilities of technology to connect people together, and for people to take action. I just think that the reality is a little more sobering, and that the effects of technology on our wider societies, in particular the future of work, will outpace the capacity of the technologies to bend the overall direction to the benefit of all.

While I am no means certain I fear a future where more jobs are eliminated than are created for the first time in our technological development. If such a change occurs it has the potential for both good and bad. The negative picture is one where more and more wealth accumulates in the hands of the few and is not distributed across the general population. That is a recipe for revolution. This is particularly troubling where public trust in our democratic institutions has fallen significantly.

driveway gate 1

My other experience is that we hired a handyman to move a gate in our driveway. For some reason I cannot understand the previous owners placed a gate part way down the driveway leaving a whole lot of unused space behind it. On top of that there are significant parking restrictions on our very steep street and so visitors have to park down the hill and walk up. This is getting to be a particularly serious issue as our parents age.

The original installation of the gate had not been particularly professional and so there were problems opening and closing the gate due to warping of the wood. When we got down to the details of the job we discovered that about 13 different types of bolts and screws had been used in the original gate installation. On top of that some were metric, and some were imperial (inches) and some seemed in between. On top of that some of the screws had been rounded out and were impossible to remove by standard methods. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the concrete at the new position we were looking to install the gate on had three different levels.

Luckily we had hired an old time craftsman/handyman who had all the tricks and now the gate is safely installed (see picture). The dog has no chance of getting out, and our parents can now park in the driveway. Those are the sorts of jobs that are not going away in a hurry because of the levels of variation for each job. Our handyman (also Paul) says he reckons he has 20 years of work ahead of him in his semi-retirement. I think he is right and if you are concerned about the future employment of your children and they have aptitude for this sort of work (which includes plumbing) then keep encouraging them.

I realise that these two subjects are different ends of the same issue and the second one has no real bearing on the wider societal issues. I will keep trying to make a contribution to those wider issues.


Paul Higgins

Augmentation of Human Capacity

On Friday I did the opening keynote for the Mindshop Australia conference. The title was “Bringing the Future into your Advisory Practice”. The focus was on ways of creating more value for the clients of advisors in the network. After the session there was much discussion from participants on the nature of work and the sorts of jobs that they should encourage their children to be aiming for.

My response to those questions was to use examples to highlight principles rather than recommend specific jobs because jobs will change. I used the example of the health sector and new AI developments in my presentation as well as in the discussions afterwards. For example:

Self-taught artificial intelligence beats doctors at predicting heart attacks

stylised heart image from sciencemag

On the weekend I was then reading Stowe Boyd’s  10 work skills for the postnormal era and I was struck by the statement on “Freestyling” from Tyler Cohen:

“When humans team up with computers to play chess, the humans who do best are not necessarily the strongest players. They’re the ones who are modest, and who know when to listen to the computer. Often, what the human adds is knowledge of when the computer needs to look more deeply”

This married up with the response I was giving to participants at the conference. The use of AI systems to augment the capacities of humans  does not augment everyone equally. In the world of medical specialists it is a commonly held view among patients that they will put up with specialists with poor social skills or high prices because of the knowledge they hold (putting aside the issues of the professions restricting supply to keep prices high).

If that knowledge moves largely to the realm of artificial intelligence then this re-weights the value of the medical specialist. If the machine can do things the individual or team cannot possibly do by being able to access more knowledge and make more connections in that knowledge than is humanly possible then it changes the system. Knowledge becomes less important and skills such as the capacity to work with the AI, patient empathy and general social skills become more important.

Augmentation  of human cognitive capacities will do that across sectors and industries.


The Future for Accountants

The story for accountants the last few years has been increasing levels of outsourcing tasks to low wage environments such as India, and increasing levels of automation for their tasks and their clients. The early stage of that process has been the automation in accounting software systems such as QuickBooks and Mint. Increasingly this automation will move into more and more of the accounting space including real time artificial intelligence auditing systems, automatic preparation of increasing complex tax returns, and structuring credit arrangements.

These things generally start out small and at the less complex end of things and accelerate into more complex areas before people realise it has happened.

So where is the new value for accountants. Primarily this has to be in the process of value creation for clients. Therefore accountants need to move up the value chain and Examples include:

1/ Transformation of business processes around technology changes and the re-training of staff for their SME clients.

As I wrote in Questions on the Future of Work a recent McKinsey report has stated that

According to our analysis, fewer than 5 percent of occupations can be entirely automated using current technology. However, about 60 percent of occupations could have 30 percent or more of their constituent activities automated”

This supports the notion that apart from a few isolated cases (e.g. truck drivers with driverless trucks) technology does not replace jobs but replaces particular skills or tasks. More importantly business processes and the ways in which we serve customers are changed by the introduction of various forms of artificial intelligence into technologies. This can be a customised approach for vendors like Salesforce Einstein which is adding AI services to its sales, and customer service offerings at around US$50 to US$75 per user per month. Or it can be more fundamental changes to value propositions and business models and the underlying capabilities required to deliver them.

Either way we appear to be entering an era where the jobs people will do will change even more rapidly than they have over the last 10 years and will constantly change rather than be part of a single change management process. In my experience most organisations with under 1,000 employees have little idea on how to approach this problem. This is a huge opportunity for accountants who already have close contact with their clients.

2/ Assisting clients with understanding their strategic landscape

In a world that is moving faster and changing more rapidly than ever before operators of SME businesses are facing greater uncertainty than ever before. They are also facing a paradox. The pressure on them means that they must spend more time focusing on the operational matters in their business but they are doing so right at the time that looking around to see what is happening becomes more important. Just last week I was working with an SME business that is very well run and focused on all the right things that need to be done for the next 12 months. At the same time they were not thinking very deeply about the future and that their decisions (that were absolutely correct in a short term sense) might mean for their long term future.

This means that there is great value for an independent adviser that sees a wide range of other businesses and can:

  • Provide a better strategic understanding of the industry in which the client business operates. Examples include looking at possible industry scenarios for 5 years time and trying to understand what the interim competitive position might be.
  • Cross pollinate ideas and ways of doing things from other businesses in other business sectors. Sometimes very simple tools and approaches from somewhere else can significantly improve a businesses bottom line.
  • Look at the business from a dispassionate but involved perspective and ask questions the business is not asking itself. Examples might include – does your logical short term investment in cost improvements weaken your balance sheet and capacity to respond to x/y or z which are significant risks?  OR What custom built systems are you using which can be supplied via industry standard products or new utility services.
  • Run a structured red team/blue team process to attacking and defending the business from an outside perspective.


3/ In the future: utilisation of AI to augment their own capabilities

The reality of artificial intelligence is narrow expertise systems rather than a general intelligence. So we will see artificial intelligence systems that can aid sales people and customer service people but cannot do other things (see Einstein above). We will see narrow artificial intelligence systems that can assist doctors but not do much else. The list goes on.

The modern approach to artificial intelligence systems is basically on of machine learning which requires large training data sets and a large market to justify to expenditure on development and training. Therefore we will see AI systems developing in markets where there are either a lot of customers, or high margin customers, or both. Given how many accounting practices there are around the world the accountancy business is one that is ripe for such a development.

Agriculture, Technology and Future Careers

Paul Presenting at Bendigo November 2015 Teachers Agriculture and Career Opportunities

A couple of weeks ago it was my privilege along with several other speakers to engage with a roomful of teachers to talk about future possible careers for their students in Agriculture based around technology. The overall message was that the future was very bright for those with the passion and sills in technology to have well paid and fulfilling careers in the regions.

You can access the presentation at :

Agriculture, Technology and Careers 

The key messages were:

  • That more and more value is going to be created through data and technology in agriculture. For example Merrill Lynch has released a report saying that the use of agricultural drones are projected to create 100,000 jobs and $82 billion in economic value over the next decade in America alone. This prediction n terms of where drones will be used is seen strikingly in the following graph:

drone predictions for agriculture in the USA


  • Because of this there is going to be a massive demand for people with the skills to create and supply services into agriculture.
  • That because many of these services can be supplied via the internet or via mobile phones there is both an opportunity and a risk. If we can build a capacity regionally then we can both defend ourselves against outside providers and provide services in other countries and regions.
  • That the skills will be a combination of technology, the capacity to collaborate, and the understanding of agricultural business models.
  • The skills are also transferrable. So for example if we want to maintain aged care services at the highest possible level in regional communities the capacity to use predictive data and healthcare data will be vital. Therefore developing the skills opens up far more career opportunities than just agriculture. On top of that our ability to maintain viable regional communities will be in part dependent on these skills and I would much rather have people in our communities supplying the services than money flowing out of the community to service providers elsewhere.
  • That we need three things. Passion, market and skills.  I think that it is obvious that there is a market but if you have a market and no skills you cannot provide the necessary services . And if you have skills and market but no passion you will burnout. Therefore we need to help equip those individuals with the passion to be involved with the skills to support that passion.

Following the day there was a significant increase in the number of teachers who saw possibilities for their students in agriculture.

I would like thank the Bendigo Tertiary Education Partnership  and Community Leadership Loddon Murray Inc,and especially Kerry Anderson for inviting me along.

I believe that there is huge potential in our regions for careers around technology and we need to grasp that opportunity now.

My job advice to my nephews and nieces for 2025

I spent a few days over the Christmas break down at my parents house near the beach on the Mornington Peninsula and hung out with my brothers, sisters in law, and my nephews and nieces.

During one of our later night discussions which are always willing but friendly one of my sisters in law posed the question of what my view was on what they should be advising their children on their future work prospects and directions. We had a bit of a discussion on that but then I sat down and collated a few thoughts for them and some things I think they should read. This is the gist of that advice:

Bottom line is that I believe that we are at the edge of a technological revolution in robotics and artificial intelligence.

Advances in robotics that include cheaper and better sensors and intelligence capacity will move them beyond manufacturing and into cooperative manufacturing, and assisting and replacing humans in all sorts of physical tasks.

Advances in artificial intelligence due to massive increases in computing power and moves towards much better natural language computers/semantic knowledge/deep machine learning will move computer intelligence out of just replacement of easily routinised jobs due to data crunching capacity, and into many more areas of human work – e.g. computer assisted journalism

There are really two scenarios here – that we will see more changes than we can imagine as in the industrial revolution, and more and more jobs will be created, or large slabs of jobs will disappear for ever and not be replaced, and that will cause significant disruption and competition for work unless we move to a new way of having an economy. Now you can take the Luddite view or you can take an optimistic view but the key to thinking about the future is to create a strategy that deals with multiple possible futures as well as you can, whilst understanding that most of the futures you can think up will probably not go close to mapping what the world will look like.

Just to put this in context my youngest niece will probably not enter the workforce until at least 2025, and more probably 2030 and will then have a working life which is likely to extend to 2080 so we are talking about long time frames here.

So what advice would I give to a parent of a 5-15 year old at the moment.

The key is involvement in :

  • Jobs that are not easily routinised – my brother mentioned plumbing and other trades and he was right– the capacity to carry out a complicated task that is different every time and interact with people will still be highly human centered.
  • Jobs with high levels of manual dexterity – robotics still find that hard to master although some systems of surgery are better than people already.
  • Jobs that require high levels of empathy and capacity to interact with people – e.g. aged care, teaching, although stuff like retail is likely to become more data and network facilitated than through an individual shopping experience.
  • Jobs that require the capacity to coach and facilitate networks to perform rather than the current emphasis on managers and hierarchies – requires empathy as well.
  • Jobs centred around the ability to find insight in data – assisted by AI but value added by people.
  • Jobs that are highly creative and require visions and connection.
  • Jobs that cross the boundaries of the jobs types I have listed above.
  • Jobs centered around the ability to code

In terms of thinking about this more I would recommend looking at the following

Better Than Human: Why Robots Will — And Must — Take Our Jobs – by the fantastic Kevin Kelly

Algorithms, Robots and the Future of Management – a previous post by me with a great addition from my friend and colleague Stowe Boyd

I also recommend you read Stowe’s :Beneath the chatter about the Future Of Work lies a discontinuity which I think is more about the near future than the long future.

The IFTF report on future work skills – details drivers and skills

In the end we can give all the clinical and logical advice we like but the most important thing for them to do is to pursue what they are passionate about with a weather eye out to the fact that you need passion, skills and a market to make a living and:

  • If you have passion and skills but not market you have a hobby
  • If you have skills and a market but no passion you will be mediocre or burnout
  • If you have a market and passion but no skills you will fail in an increasingly competitive world

The great thing about the modern world is that skills are easier and easier to gain, and markets can span the globe for an individual or a small organisation. So passion is the cornerstone.

Paul Higgins

Some readers have requested some further links and reading on these issues. Here are  a a few from our scanning database:
Robots Can’t End Amazon’s Labor Woes Because They Don’t Have Hands

This was written by RACTER, a computer program that can generate original English language prose and poetry at random

SWARM Quadrotors (Aerial Robots): Coordinated Flight of Small Quadcoptors Interacting with Humans

A Mind-Controlled Exoskeleton Will Kick Off the 2014 World Cup

Brainlike Computers, Learning From Experience

Algorithms, Robots and the Future of Management

Over at the HBR Blog network Walter Frick has an interesting article/blog post entitled:

“Algorithms Won’t Replace Managers, But Will Change Everything About What They Do”


“The labor market is about to be transformed by machine intelligence, the combination of ubiquitous data and the algorithms that make sense of them. That’s according to economist Tyler Cowen, in an argument spelled out in his recent book Average is Over. As Cowen sees it, your job prospects are directly tied to your ability to successfully augment machine intelligence.”


” In any company, you need someone to manage the others, and management is a very hard skill. Relative returns to managers have been rising steadily; good managers are hard to find. And, again, computers are not close to being able to do that. So I think the age of the marketer, the age of the manager are actually our immediate future”

I recommend that you go and read the whole thing because I think that the potential disruption from robotics and improved artificial intelligence is huge. Now people have been belabouring that sort of point from way back, including the often quoted Luddites but we have muddled through and adapted, and created new jobs that we had not previously conceived  However there is a real possibility we are moving through a major turning point that we will only really understand in retrospect and it has the potential to rewrite the world far more fundamentally than the industrial or information age.

I think that the interview that Walter has done is interesting but I do not think that it addresses a key point which is that the fundamental nature of management is changing anyway without these advances. Existing changes and disruptions that are enabling connections between people through social media and social business tools are re-ordering the way that work and strategy are carried out. On top of that the capacities we are giving to individuals and small networks mean that many things that required a large organisation to carry out 5 years ago no longer do so.

This means that the role of management is in part being devolved to the network and so existing concepts of the middle manager are already almost obsolete and therefore to look at the future through a frame of disrupting that role is missing the point.

The role of management is moving towards one of coach and facilitator rather than management and the more skills and capacities that individuals in the network gain, the harder that role will become and the lower the number of ” managers” required”.

I have been looking at some of these things from the point of view of the food and agriculture supply chain and in particular the role of the adviser which has traditionally been the interpretation and handing over of the holy tablet of knowledge. As networks take over part of the role the adviser is challenge and we are struggling with thinking through how the business models look. Any thoughts would be gratefully accepted.

Paul Higgins

Update 23rd December 2013:

I think a very useful addition to this viewpoint is one from my friend and colleague Stowe Boyd:

Network performance is the single most important characteristic of successful employees


“I think business leaders and HR departments do not understand this shift, or the fact that this shift is accelerating, so that in a year or two 75% of a peoples’ value will be based on their network performance, their ability to contribute to and accept from others. We will have to totally rethink performance measurement. It may in some sense be unmeasurable, but at the very least it should be some sort of distributed valuation based on all those who benefit from a person’s participation in work activities, weighted by the closeness and frequency of interaction. Today, it is madness to default to a single individual — the supervisor — to assess a person’s performance, if it ever made sense at all”