Driverless lorries set to dominate UK ferry traffic

Driverless lorries set to dominate UK ferry traffic

Driverless HGVs could replace much of the UK’s conventional lorry and container transport within a generation and transform the way the ro-ro market works in the UK, a new report suggests.

The Impact of Autonomous and Ultra-Low Emission HGVs on the British RORO Port Market, a joint report published by the British Ports Association (BPA) and freight transport consultancy MDS Transmodal, examines emerging trends in the maritime industries and explores the opportunities and challenges to British ports that may present themselves over the next 50 years.

Changes anticipated in the study 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 document also 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 UK’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 UK ports and shipping but also UK roads and other national infrastructure such as rail links.

Phoebe Warneford-Thomson, policy and economic analyst at the BPA, said: "There are undoubtedly significant challenges ahead for the ro-ro sector and the wider ports industry, such as the transformation to net-zero carbon emissions and moves towards automation.

“However, with detailed analysis and forward-thinking as shown in this report, we can plan for the changes ahead and turn these into lucrative opportunities. By forecasting the future trends in the ro-ro sector and ensuring ports can cater for the potential growth in the ‘driverless accompanied’ type of traffic, they can anticipate these changes and be ready to maximise economic advantage.”

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.

“This would, in turn, have implications on other markets. Our modelling of a scenario for autonomous and electric vehicles in 2050 suggests that potential developments include a substantial shift of traffic towards ‘driverless accompanied’ ro-ro traffic through ports located on the North Sea and the Western English Channel and this would have implications for ro-ro port operations and the amount of land required.”

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% 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 report 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.

The report is available here