How ‘vehicle platooning’ could solve our haulage hardship

By Jamil Ahmed, Distinguished Engineer at Solace.

Brexit and COVID continue to cause ripples across the UK, with the record shortage of haulage drivers causing havoc for the country’s businesses. With a shortage of over 100,000 drivers, it’s not surprising the economy is suffering. Heavyweights like Wetherspoons and McDonalds, and Ikea have all reported missing inventory and delivery issues in the last few weeks.

The latest reports state that haulage firms intend to slash the time required for workers to pass the HGV driving test. However, while short-term measures like this may help, rushing newbie drivers onto the roads to help the crisis may not be the optimal use of resources.

If supply chains are to stand any chance of handling the mounting pressure to provide goods in the run up to Christmas and meet future challenges in an ever-more volatile world, businesses should take a serious look at how technology can help them do more, with less.

A worldwide crisis

It’s important to note that the current crisis doesn’t stop with the driver shortfall. Port closures and wood shortages are sending container rental prices skyrocketing, affecting the price and availability of goods for consumers. Therefore, it’s essential that all parties in the supply chain, including haulage drivers, have a granular overview of journeys and locations to mitigate the effects on the consumer. Intelligent management and tracking of goods is no longer a nice to have, but an absolute essential.

One great example of this is Unilever, and their virtual ocean control tower. This is a first-of-its-kind, unmanned system that seamlessly connects all parties in the chain through a real-time electronic data interchange (EDI) information flow. This allows Unilever to have highly accurate, continually updated data on the status of each shipment at every stage of its journey, from its point of departure to when it reaches the distributor, store, or factory.

This is also enhanced by machine learning and predictive analytics, so every potential issue along the way – from port congestion to demurrage and detention charges, temperature deviation and ETA changes – is proactively identified and an alert automatically sent to everyone who needs to know.

Vehicle platooning

When it comes to haulage drivers, a similar technology-led method that may lessen the current crisis is ‘platooning’. Vehicle platooning is an innovation in the automotive industry that aims to improve safety, efficiency, mileage, and time of travel of vehicles while relieving traffic congestion and decreasing pollution.

Platooning looks to translate the efficiency of rail freight transport, with a single driver transporting dozens of containers, to the motorway network. This involves trucks driving in a tight knit manner, a very short distance behind one another, often with the assistance of technology such as radars and magnets to keep the platoon as a uniform entity.

More importantly, platooning allows one driver to lead the way, while other driverless trucks follow in an automated fashion. Picture a convoy of trucks driving along the major motorways, all led by a lead vehicle. This frees up drivers to concentrate on last-mile delivery, with the platooning convoys handling the transport between designated hubs along the main motorway network. This way, haulage companies can achieve far more with less, alleviating the harsh reality of the labour shortage.

No silver bullet

While there is no magic panacea for our supply chain woes, it’s clear that building a technologically advanced, instantly reactive supply chain should be top priority for businesses and governments. With innovations such as platooning, businesses can start to see how fast-moving data and automation are essential in today’s rapidly changing world.

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