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The introduction of automation in global transport will be “evolutionary, rather than revolutionary,” according to a new report that investigates how the global transport industry will change as a result of automation and advanced technologies.

“Transport 2040: Automation Technology Employment—The Future of Work” forecasts and analyzes trends and developments in the major transport sectors—seaborne, road, rail and aviation—to 2040 with an emphasis on the implications for jobs and employment for transport workers.

A flagship report by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the World Maritime University (WMU), it is the first-ever, independent and comprehensive assessment of how automation will affect the future of work in the transport industry. It focuses on technological changes that the industry is undertaking to efficiently interconnect the world through international trade.

4 major findings

Key findings indicate that technological advances are inevitable, but will be gradual and vary by region. The report highlights four major study results.

One is that economic benefits, demographic trends and safety factors are catalysts for automation; but in many areas of global transport the pace in the introduction of automation will be gradual.

Another is that the increasing volume of trade leads to more demand for transportation in the future, while regional changes in transportation patterns are expected.

Third, with the gradual pace in the introduction of technology and the increased volume of trade, their effects on employment are predictable. Low- and medium-skilled workers will be exposed to the high risk of automation. However, the pace of introduction and diffusion of technologies will depend on differences in the development stage of countries and their comparative advantages.

Fourth, automation and technology are influenced by the local context. The assessment of individual country profiles shows that countries and regions are not at the same level of readiness to adopt new technologies and automation. An analysis of relevant key factors highlights the gap between developed and developing countries.

Types of novel technologies

Meanwhile, novel technologies are seen to be grouped into four clusters. One cluster will be on automation of vehicles and infrastructure. Examples of such technologies are autonomous commuter trains, automated ships and airplanes, cranes, control centers.

Another cluster involves maintenance of vehicles and infrastructure (e.g. condition-based maintenance, inspection drones, repair robots, additive manufacturing of spare parts).

The third is about user interfaces for customers and equipment operators (e.g. chatbots for travel advice and ticketing, customer service robots providing information and catering).

The fourth cluster is centered on new services, e.g., mobility as a service, cross-modal transport on demand, availability-oriented business models.

In addition, looking at the different transport sectors, the report predicts automation and new technologies will be introduced in all segments, but with sector-specific differences.

Impact by sector

In the aviation industry, annual labor productivity has been growing faster than the overall economy. In addition to technological progress and automation, the growth rate has been the result of an increase in demand and change in the industry structure, such as the growth of low-cost carriers. Labor productivity in the airport sector appears to be more volatile than in the airline sector.

In maritime transport, the adoption of novel technologies tends to occur at a slower pace. Indications are that agreed international guidelines and regulations regarding autonomous transport are unlikely to be achieved within the next decade. However, if a strong economic benefit is expected and social acceptance exists, highly automated transport solutions could be implemented at the regional level and governed by national legislation or bilateral agreements among adjacent countries.

With respect to road-based transport, the introduction of these technologies and automation is likely to be evolutionary. In the case of transportation network companies in comparison to taxis, a much more immediate and disruptive effect may occur for certain uses, e.g. urban-shared mobility.

In rail transport, it can be assumed that using existing technologies could solve most of the technical and functional issues regarding fully automatic train operations

“Challenges that need to be resolved in all modes of transport are mainly operational and legal ones. Within the next 10 to 15 years fully autonomous operations are expected to become possible with the technical and legal barriers having been resolved,” said the report.

“While the above trend indicates a gradual introduction of technology, disruptive technologies may emerge in selected sectors, e.g. airport passenger operations, customer and sales services, passenger security check, luggage and cargo logistics, taxis, local buses and, in the case of Europe, in the train control system,” it further said.

Worker displacement and job creation

As for transport workers, they will be affected in different ways based on their skill levels and the varying degrees of preparedness of different countries. The report stated that “despite high levels of automation, qualified human resources with the right skill sets will still be needed in the foreseeable future.”

The report noted that new technologies and automation are impacting transport sector workers through both the displacement and creation of jobs, and may result in difficult transitions for many employed in the transportation sector.

“The future of work needs to ensure that workers are suitably qualified and re-trained to effectively master new technologies and higher levels of automation,” it added.

International Maritime Organization (IMO) Secretary-General Kitack Lim during the launch of the report last month noted that integrating new and advancing technologies in the regulatory framework for the shipping industry is a key strategic direction for IMO.

“Member states and the industry need to anticipate the impact these changes may have and how they will be addressed,” he said.

ITF general secretary Stephen Cotton stated, “Transport workers of today and tomorrow must be equipped with the required knowledge, skills and expertise for the jobs of tomorrow. The study provides the information needed to support these aims.”

Dr. Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, president of WMU, said, “The transportation sector is vital to national economies and the global economy as a whole. We hope this report will help prepare the transportation industry to continue to contribute to the wellbeing of societies and communities worldwide and provide decent work for all.”

Photo courtesy of WMU

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