Russian trucking company Traft has unveiled a transformative strategy it hopes will reinvent logistics for an age of autonomous vehicles and on-demand services.
The company has taken steps to replace 20 percent of its fleet with vehicles that have autonomous capabilities this year. In 2018, the goal will double.
To ensure its employees aren't left behind, Traft embraced another ambitious idea. This spring, the Moscow-based company helped its employees create a government-approved union to oversee extensive re-training programs and safeguard their rights in the future.
"We have a lot of organizations lobbying the interests of carriers, but nobody protects their legal rights," said Ivan Pachko, a spokesperson for Traft. "Truck drivers are advanced people and can handle complex electronics, such as tachograph equipment."
The lack of continuing education to match the evolving industry needs to be corrected, Pachko said.
Traft's move comes amid increasing international trepidation about the fate of the estimated 6.4 million long-haul truckers as the industry continues to explore self-driving vehicles.
While experts believe fully autonomous trucks are at least a decade away, the long-term impact is expected to be devastating. According to a study released this week by the International Transport Forum, automated trucks are projected to cut the number of truck driving jobs up to 70 percent by 2030.
Truck manufacturers are already starting to offer semi-autonomous features that could impact the role of the driver much sooner.
No trucking company may be more eager to seize the self-driving future than Traft.
While the name may not familiar in western regions, Traft is a major player in the Russian market. Originally a subsidiary of a Germany company, the company was spun off in 2005 to focus on the challenges of serving the massive geographic span of the Russian nation.
The company has about 100 full-time employees, and contracts with thousands of other truckers who operate across the country.
While there are certain headwinds associated with shipping goods across Russia, many of Traft's pain points are shared among all trucking operators. Rising gas costs. Employee insurance and turnover. Maintenance.
"All basic costs are growing rapidly," Pachko said. "They need to be cut, if we want to remain leaders in the industry."
The company has been turning to technology to help. It launched the Traft Online platform for customers to order and manage their shipping services. Clients can also arrange packaging and labeling, as well as cargo transport and loading, through a mobile app.
The app lets Traft coordinate directly with drivers and monitor the exact location of shipments in real-time. Taft describes the platform as 'Uber for trucking,' and claims it is streamlining the process and reducing costs already.
But the company has bigger plans. To meet its ambitious automation goals, Traft said earlier this year it was beginning the selection process to find a vendor to deliver self-driving vehicles for its fleet.
"There is no better time for decisive action, than now,' Pachko said, paraphrasing General George S. Patton. "Unmanned vehicles will help us to achieve savings and cut costs in several fundamental ways."
The company is still in the bidding process. But it has developed prototypes of what the trucks will look like, and has narrowed the list to two possible vendors, both Russian: Kamaz and GAZ.
Kamaz is Russia's largest manufacturer of commercial vehicles, and has been working with Moscow-based software company Cognitive Technologies to develop an autonomous vehicle platform. GAZ Group - another large commercial manufacturer - has also been investing heavily in self-driving trucks.
To test the competing vendors, Traft built the country's first specialized testing 'polygon'. The polygon includes obstacles that allow the company to test self-driving vehicles in traffic conditions, difficult terrain, unloading at a warehouse or refueling.
But as it's gone through the evaluation process, Traft started to receive letters from its drivers. Many were worried for their job security.
That led the company to create what it claims is the first trade union in the world for drivers of unmanned vehicles. From the company's perspective, its drivers need to be willing partners to successfully make the leap to fully-autonomous vehicles.
Traft says that will be an evolutionary process starting with the semi-autonomous vehicles it will roll out some time later this year. That will still impact the role of the drivers, who will need new training.
What the company doesn't want is a massive backlash from those drivers, with pictures of them marching through the streets and halting the country's transportation networks.
First and foremost, the company hopes the union will create a structure that will allow it to communicate more transparently about the changes that are happening and why. The union will also help organize and run a series of training centers across Russia.
Those centers will teach new technology accessible in the truck cabin; new responsibilities a driver might have on the route when they're not driving; and how to monitor and analyze the new types of data that will be accessible. The company also plans to offer webinars for truckers who don't live near a center, and audio seminars they can listen to on the road.
The union will also be a group that can advocate for the salaries and new pay structures needed to match new driver responsibilities.
Russia's government is moving toward approving the use of unmanned vehicles on certain long-haul routes to places like Helsinki. With regulations coming into focus, Pachko said the move to autonomous vehicles could happen more quickly than some believe.
The company hopes that by creating a support structure that brings drivers along, they are offering a model for how industries of all kinds can manage the social and economic impact of disruptive technologies.
"We in Traft see a real threat that the personnel question will lag far behind the legislative and technological development of the sphere of unmanned vehicles," he said. "The most common profession in Russia is a truck driver. Therefore, the protection of their rights is truly a matter of interest for a significant part of our society."
By Chris O'Brien