Report: Driverless Lorries Could Soon Dominate U.K. Ferry Traffic

Credit: BPA
Credit: BPA

Published Jan 23, 2020 6:47 PM by The Maritime Executive

Were driverless heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) to replace much of the U.K.’s conventional lorry and container transport within a generation, they would transform the way the ro-ro market works in Great Britain, according to a new white paper by the British Ports Association and MDS Transmodal.  

The Impact of Autonomous and Ultra-Low Emission HGVs on the British RORO Port Market White Paper examines how freight traffic between the British Isles and the Continent could change in the longer term after Brexit. It plots how a large proportion of the U.K.’s maritime traffic will fare in 2050 under an “autonomy and carbon reduction” scenario in which autonomous and ultra-low emission HGVs have been widely deployed. This will have impacts on U.K. ports and shipping but also U.K. roads and other national infrastructure such as rail links.

About 90 percent of the U.K.’s trade with Ireland and the European continental mainland is handled currently as ro-ro cargo transported in road trailers on ferries or on the Eurotunnel Freight Shuttle through the Channel Tunnel. This RoRo freight traffic can be categorized as being either:

• Accompanied HGVs: where a tractor unit, accompanied by a driver, hauls the trailer on a door-to-door trip involving a ferry or Eurotunnel freight shuttle crossing;

• Unaccompanied trailers: where only the trailer is transported on a ro-ro ferry, but is delivered to the port of departure and collected from the port of arrival by a tractor unit with driver;

• Shipborne port-to-port trailers: where containers are transported on special low height trailers on a ro-ro ferry. As the containers can often be double-stacked, this can reduce the unit costs for the transport of containers. Again, the containers are only transported port-to-port and so have to be delivered to and collected from the ports by HGVs.

Changes anticipated in the White Paper include significant growth in the market share of “driverless accompanied” ro-ro traffic – particularly through North Sea and Western English Channel ports.

Technical developments and commercial and environmental pressures are expected to encourage freight operators to look at new and innovative ways to ship the relatively high-value trade that will be transported in trailers through the British ports of the future.

The modelling of scenarios using MDS Transmodal’s GB Freight Model (GBFM) suggests that:

• The roll-out of autonomous HGVs would lead to a boost for the accompanied ro-ro mode, which would secure an 80 percent market share in 2050.

• As this boost in share is largely due to lower driver costs, a  new type of ro-ro traffic - “driverless accompanied” – would be created.

• This increase in autonomous HGVs and subsequent rise in the ro-ro “driverless accompanied” traffic would lead to growth in  traffic through ports in almost all parts of Great Britain, but particularly through the Humber and on the Western English Channel.

• The impacts on specific ports vary according to their existing mix of traffic between accompanied and unaccompanied ro-ro and their geographic location.

The White Paper concludes that despite hurdles to be overcome before autonomous and ultra-low emission HGVs are operating on British highways, there is likely to be a significant future focus on overcoming these obstacles as operators seek to reduce costs and remain competitive. Furthermore, it would lead to Britain’s short sea transport chains becoming both more efficient economically and more sustainable. 

Commenting, Chris Rowland, Managing Director, at MDS Transmodal said: “Technical, regulatory and economic barriers remain with regards to the deployment of autonomous HGVs on the British highways network by 2050. However, given the policy imperative of reducing emissions and the market-based need to increase the efficiency of road freight transport, particularly given rising HGV driver costs, we anticipate a significant industry-wide effort to overcome these barriers.”

The White Paper is available here.