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Teleoperation: Compensating for Driver Shortage by Remote Truck Control

DHL LKW

The lack of drivers – just like the general lack of skilled labor in the economy – is a serious problem for the future viability of logistics. Companies like DHL Freight have long been considering ways to improve the tense situation in terms of driving personnel. Against this backdrop, automation and remote operation are promising options for making the truck driver’s job more enjoyable in the future, while at the same time ensuring high performance. Here you can discover what teleoperation and telerobotics promise for the future.

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Remote-controlled vs. Autonomous Driving

So, what is it all about? Unlike AI-supported autonomous driving, where vehicles promise to operate entirely without any human assistance, the human factor continues to play a significant role in the teleoperation of autonomous vehicles – only no longer as a driver in the cab, but as a teleoperator in the control center. This is not all just pie in the sky: in intralogistics within freight centers – and outside the scope of road traffic regulations – autonomous vehicles are already in (test) operation. DHL Freight is also piloting future technologies such as automated shunting vehicles for the terminal for the future.

On public roads, however, autonomous delivery vehicles are still far from reality. Technically, there is yet much to be implemented, and the safety considerations involved in the approval of autonomous vehicles – be it cars or trucks – are quite understandable. Thus, the shortage of drivers in logistics will not be resolved in the near future. The hope is that remote-controlled vehicles might be used in the medium term wherever autonomous driving remains utopian, even in the long term.

What is the Difference Between Teleoperation and Telerobotics?

Telerobotics: Definition

Telerobotics is the remote control of robots via wireless transmission systems. A telerobot does not operate fully autonomously but responds to control signals or interacts with humans. Telerobotics is not necessarily about fulfilling orders – such as transporting goods or performing maintenance in dangerous environments.

Telerobotics can also be focused on telepresence, which is the ability to be in a place via the robot’s sensory system – similar to virtual reality – without traveling there yourself. In this respect, teleoperation is only a subdivision of telerobotics.

Teleoperation: Definition

Teleoperation is the remote control of devices, equipment, or machines to perform tasks. The idea of teleoperation includes teleoperation robots, but generally refers to any remote control of vehicles, machines, etc. In this respect, telerobotics is also a subfield of teleoperation. That is why sometimes another term is used: teleoperation robotics.

Teleoperation in Logistics

Teleoperation should not only be seen in the context of driver shortages, but also as part of the general push for innovation via digitization, which is impacting all areas of logistics: from digital warehouse and supply chain management to load optimization as well as route and personnel planning. Digitization optimizes processes and increases efficiency. Teleoperation is another example of this. Currently, one driver is responsible for one vehicle. At least in intralogistics operations, a teleoperator could take care of several vehicles and improve their interaction through coordinated operation.

With respect to teleoperation on public roads, however, just as with autonomous driving, it must be conceded: reliable teleoperation systems are required to safely steer and stop trucks from a great distance. Otherwise, mobility without a driver in the cab is not possible. In principle, the technology is similar to autonomous driving: cameras and sensors on the vehicle detect the surroundings and road users.

Unlike autonomous driving, though, humans are present the whole time and experience everything the vehicle transmits (keyword: telepresence). And in teleoperation, it is still the human who makes vital decisions – not the AI. The ethical debate, which is important for autonomous driving, about how an AI should decide which of two people should be spared by an evasive maneuver if the worst comes to the worst, is omitted.

Driver Becomes Operator

For this reason, remotely operated trucks controlled by a teleoperator in a desk cockpit with a steering wheel, brake, or joystick may be on the road sooner than fully autonomous trucks. This could turn the family-unfriendly profession of the driver into the modern profession of the teleoperator, who enjoys the evening after work with his family and must no longer sleep at rest areas.

“Without the automation of vehicles, it will not be possible to ensure logistics in the future.”

Klaus Kappen, Chief Technology Officer Rheinmetall in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt

Standardized Processes in Intralogistics: Ideal for Teleoperation

But let us stay grounded in reality: the necessary safety and road approvals cannot be obtained overnight. The most obvious point of use for teleoperated vehicles is likely to be freight terminals, depots, and transshipment centers, where loading processes and short distances are involved. Here, workflows are established and standardized, and driverless teleoperation technology can be integrated quickly.

Not only traditionally controlled and remotely controlled trucks could then drive side by side: teleoperation and autonomous driving could also go hand in hand. Standard control processes will be performed by the AI – and when things get tricky, the teleoperator will take over.

Conclusion

Teleoperation in logistics transport is a promising approach to compensating for the driver shortage in the medium to long term. However, this does not mean that we at DHL Freight are neglecting our human drivers in the cockpit. We value and protect our employees at the wheel. At the same time, we want to set sustainable and technological trends to make transport logistics efficient and fit for the future. People, nature, technology, and innovation go together at DHL Freight.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What do teleoperation and telerobotics mean?
    Telerobotics is the remote control of robots. Teleoperation is the remote control of any type of device or machine to perform tasks. The terms are not synonymous: telerobotics refers to more than just performing tasks, and teleoperation refers to more than just robots.
  • What can teleoperation be used for in logistics?
    Remote-controlled vehicles can be used in intralogistics in the short term and may also take over transports on the road in the medium to long term.

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