By Tess Macallan, Journalist, Infrastructure Magazine

Digital innovations in transport and freight can increase efficiency, reduce costs and create new job opportunities. In Australia, however, the transport sector is lagging behind other OECD countries when it comes to digitalisation and automation trends. A recent report by Swinburne University of Technology, funded by the iMOVE Cooperative Research Centre and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, sheds light on the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead in adapting to this ever-evolving landscape.

Once a concept confined to science fiction movies, robo-taxis are currently being trialled in cities across the world. These autonomous ride sharing vehicles are just one example of the way the transport sector is rapidly evolving, offering new opportunities for performance improvement whilst also creating concerns surrounding the implications of digital innovations.

This year, Swinburne University published Creating our future transport and mobility workforce: understanding the workforce implications of transport digitalisation and automation in Australia, outlining how Australia can take advantage of technology solutions to enhance efficiency in this vital sector of the economy.

Professor of Future Urban Mobility at Swinburne University of Technology and co-author of the report, Hussein Dia, said there are numerous opportunities for digitisation and automation in the transport sector in Australia.

Mr Dia said these solutions include advancements in connected and automated vehicles, warehouse digitalisation and automation, vehicle electrification, and not only electric private vehicles, but also electrification of freight vehicles, internet of things, mobile and cloud computing, the technologies for sharing economies and mobility as a service.

“Most importantly, the biggest opportunities are appearing in artificial intelligence solutions.” Mr Dia said while all these technologies hold individual importance, “there will come a point in time when their influences are going to converge and this is when we see that they will provide a lot of value.”

The age of automation

Technologies such as navigation apps, ride-sharing services and real-time public transport schedules currently provide significant benefits to people’s lives. The prospect of autonomous vehicles fuels expectations that the transport system will evolve to offer safe, more sustainable and convenient travel options.

“People are already expecting higher standards of the transport system,” Mr Dia said. “These technologies are going to provide opportunities to reduce the cost of travel, especially in the future when we have autonomous vehicles like robo-taxis.

“Once you remove the driver from the equation, the cost of transport is going to be much cheaper.” Mr Dia said people might not want to own cars anymore as they can meet their travel needs using shared vehicles.

“I would say maybe in 10 to 15 years we are going to start to see more automation in not only taxis, but also the bigger opportunity is in freight and autonomous tracking.” In the trucking industry, autonomous vehicles will provide the solution for keeping freight on schedule.

It will solve some of the issues associated with human operation, making it safer and more affordable. The same benefits will apply to other professional driving jobs. “Another opportunity is automated buses, because these operate on single lanes or lines that are much easier to map out,” Mr Dia said.

“As for private vehicles that are expected to go anywhere at any time, under all weather conditions, we are not there yet.”

Labour market disruption

As with any automation of roles once completed by humans, there are bound to be impacts on employment. Job loss due to autonomous vehicles remains subject to debate, but the Swinburne report found that it is very likely in the near future the market will favour an increase in skilled jobs and a decrease in unskilled or low-skilled jobs.

“Technology is definitely going to impact jobs and the work we’ve done, we found that it will particularly impact truck drivers at first and taxi drivers later on,” Mr Dia said. “At the same time, it’ll open up new opportunities. Technology will not eliminate work. There’s still going to be work that needs to be done. And we need to start now to think about how we transition those impacted jobs to higher quality and higher paying jobs.”

The Swinburne report found that new technologies can create new jobs, improve the quality of existing jobs, and bring previously underrepresented groups into the labour market. Low-skilled jobs are more at risk of automation, but lowquality jobs such as mileage-based driving jobs could be improved and replaced by higher quality and skilled jobs.

These would include more non-driving tasks, such as maintenance, safety control, inspection, which offer a safer and healthier work environment. Before fully-automated driving becomes a reality, automation supervision and safety-driver roles will be crucial. Remote management roles will bring drivers into control rooms and require new skills of working with automation.

In the future, autonomous on-demand fleet operators could hire licensed and experienced truck drivers to monitor and control AV trucks remotely to travel through construction sites, or areas where the self-driving software may not be able to navigate the road network.

“Our research found that actually the transition could improve the quality of life for those impacted positions because it means better job opportunities, better paying jobs and also more flexibility,” Mr Dia said.

“With the right set of strategies and policy settings and interventions, once we have committed leadership partnerships between industry, government and education institutions providing incentives, these impacts can be managed, but we need to be quick and start early in order to realise the benefits.”

Preparing the workforce

As some roles disappear, there will also be opportunities to upskill workers with jobs relating to technology. A variety of skill sets are needed for automated vehicles, including IT, cybersecurity, civil engineering, mechanical engineering, and transport system design.

“The key skills that are expected to be in high demand include knowledge of autonomous robots,” Mr Dia said. “This not only applies to autonomous vehicles, but also if we look at the freight and logistics industry, this is automation of warehouses and automation of other activities, simulation tools, digital twins and internet of things, solutions and architects.”

Cybersecurity will continue to be important, and artificial intelligence will have the greatest impact, explains Mr Dia. As part of the study, Mr Dia said he and his colleagues conducted industry stakeholder consultations.

“They communicated the importance of soft skills. So that could accompany the digital skills, things like critical thinking, communication and complex problem solving.” In order to support these new technologies and the workforce, education pathways may need adjusting, with more on the job training required.

“Some of these areas, particularly if you’re talking about warehouse automation, you might not need a degree from a university, probably you might need a TAFE qualification, but employers keep saying that what would be more beneficial is on the job training. So there could be opportunities to do more of that.

“Micro-credentials are also becoming quite important. Instead of asking someone to come and spend a full year to do a degree, for example, they can do the micro-credentials at their own convenience. They would do four of them to get a certain qualification. Part of it could be online in addition to face-to-face and on the job training.”

A need for leadership

For the transport sector to move forward successfully, governments will likely have to intervene by developing new policy and collaborating with industry stakeholders. “I think the first important policy change is to develop a national vision for intelligent transport systems,” Mr Dia said.

“Through the consultations we’ve done, the consensus was that Australia has a leadership vacuum at the national level. This needs to change. “We also need national commitment to occupational digital literacy and national standards in place for industry specific digital upskilling programs.”

The Swinburne report found there are opportunities to invite the private sector to be involved in the development of the training programs, because they know where training is required. “A partnership between universities, the Commonwealth, State Governments and the private sector to come up with targeted digital innovations training programs would be highly beneficial.

“In other countries, policies that provide incentives for private investments in digital skills have worked well. “For a lot of companies, sending someone away for half a year to get a qualification will impact their bottom line. Many countries are providing incentives or tax credits for work-based learning programs and encouraging the industry to also look at next generation training models for their transport workforce.”

Charting the path ahead

Intelligent transport systems are becoming an increasingly important area for governments, but Mr Dia said it hasn’t been elevated high enough on the national agenda yet. “Through our project, we found a genuine concern about Australia lagging behind the application of these technologies and particular workforce development.”

Alongside a collaborative approach between governments, education and the private sector, getting the community engaged is vital.

“Assessing what the community sees as priority needs for the industry, as well as what it is we need to do with transport, what are the key pain points and how do we target resources, those will help address the challenges.

“There is a lot of goodwill, but I think it is time to maybe bring these stakeholders together. We have suggested a national summit to bring together all the stakeholders to look at strategies and to look at what the community wants in addition to other key stakeholders.

“The industry is looking for direction and in the absence of direction, they’re doing their best guess estimates, if you like, of what needs to be done. “This technology is developing very fast and policies need to be in place to guide it. We are lagging behind, but we have the potential and the goodwill to move forward.

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