Japan Dominates the Global Swing to Driverless Forklifts

Cost no barrier as labour shortage worsens

Tue 12 Mar 24


Most of Japan’s truck and forklift drivers work over 80 hours of overtime each month, which puts them at the so-called ‘karoshi line’, the threshold for increased risk of death from overwork.

Currently, drivers are not subject to overtime limits, but a new law to be introduced on April 1 will cap truck drivers’ overtime at 960 hours a year. 

After the new regulations are introduced, the amount of cargo that can be transported is expected to decrease because drivers will not be able to work as many hours as before. 

A government expert panel has estimated that unless countermeasures are implemented, freight transport capacity will be 14.2% or 400 million tonnes less than the fiscal 2019 level, threatening the closure of many warehouses and storage depots.

According to Japan’s Labour Ministry, heavy vehicle drivers work an average of 2568 hours a year, 444 hours longer than the national average for all jobs.

Life as a truck driver in Japan – the best and worst of it – footage courtesy of @TruckTropia.

The scenario has brought an avalanche of inquiries from warehouse operations about self-driving machines, even though they will cost several times more than conventional versions.

An engineer at Japanese forklift maker Mitsubishi Logisnext says customers have many machines but cannot find operators to drive them.

While a typical midsize forklift sells for about US $13,300, a driverless machine costs as much as US $101,985, including installing networking infrastructure within the factory.

“Warehouse operators used to balk at the hefty price tag, but they now see it as worth considering,” said Masafumi Monchi, a product developer at Mitsubishi, in an interview with Nikkei Asia.

“Some of our customers are seriously concerned about the so-called ‘2024 problem’, the stricter enforcement of overtime rules.

Some view the shortages as a “ticking time bomb”. 

A Japanese government source estimates the stricter enforcement will create a 14% shortfall in trucking capacity nationwide this year and 34% in fiscal 2030. With fewer hours worked by truckers, warehouses must handle cargo more efficiently to avoid accidents.

So, the rush is on for high-tech driverless machines.

A self-driving forklift produced by Mitsubishi emits infrared lasers a full 360 deg. to check its location in the factory while also using other sensors to detect any object in its way.

Human operators sit in the control room and give orders on moving cargo. Up to 20 autonomous forklifts work independently, each determining a route that avoids collisions with the others.

Is fully autonomous driving the answer to global freight transportation and logistics? Footage courtesy of @FD_Engineering.

Kyoto-based Mitsubishi has improved its sensing technology enough to let self-driving forklifts travel at the same speed as regular crewed forklifts.

The company also aims to develop a forklift that can lift and put downloads using computer vision and machine learning technology, just like a self-driving car.

The current system requires warehouse operators to install sensor reflectors everywhere in the facility to guide the forklifts, which accounts for the high cost.

“Sending the forklift to truck berths to pick up cargo represents another problem,” says Mitsubishi.

“Drivers never park their trucks with millimetre precision, nor place the cargo with the right amount of accuracy. The forklift needs to adjust to where the truck and the cargo are located. As computer vision is less accurate than the sensor system, more development is needed. But the engineers say automation will be the only way forward as long as Japan’s population keeps falling.”

This potential technology would ease the workload for people and keep operations closer to schedule. It also addresses the issue of truck drivers spending hours waiting at warehouses without pay.

This growing problem is the latest development accelerating a global shift to autonomous technology. In the US, interest in automating warehouses has surged amid high inflation and rising labour costs.

The need to address labour shortages was recognised in Japan well before the current problem.

One factor is that fewer people pursue careers as truck drivers or forklift operators. To operate a forklift, a person with a driver’s license attends a lecture for a day and practices driving and operating a forklift for three days. But it takes years of practice to learn to navigate the maze of laneways, picking up and placing objects without hitting people or damaging merchandise.

Japan’s Labour Ministry data shows that accidents and fatalities involving forklifts have stayed stubbornly high as experienced operators retire and leave behind younger, less experienced drivers. A high rate of accidents could make operating a forklift even less attractive, and self-driving technology is seen as an answer to these challenges.

Other Japanese companies also see automation and better utilisation of a limited workforce as ways to overcome the debilitating challenges.

Toyota Industries, a Toyota Motor Group company and the world’s biggest forklift maker is racing to develop a self-driving forklift that can load and unload cargo from trucks arriving at warehouses.

Electronics group NEC has developed a computer system that can be retrofitted into a forklift to make it autonomous. The company plans to provide the system to many forklift operators, including Mitsubishi.

Last year, Toyota launched its new generation of driverless forklifts – footage courtesy of @toyotaforklift.

Toshiba Corporation, a Tokyo-based multi-national electronics company, has developed a computer system for logistics facilities that traces trucks and their cargo on a screen. The system lets drivers report and seek remuneration for their services online, including via smartphone.

The latest statistics document the benefits of robots for transportation and logistics—on a global scale, more professional service robots were built for transporting goods or cargo than for any other function. 

This rush of activity reflects a sense of urgency among Japanese companies with the arrival of Chinese self-driving forklifts and other autonomous warehouse vehicles in Japan.

Last year, Japanese visitors to a major logistics trade show remarked on the growing presence of Chinese exhibitors, many showcasing autonomous vehicles, including driverless forklifts. 

Japanese companies once dominated the event, but Chinese manufacturers have far more to offer in autonomous vehicles than their Japanese counterparts.

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The period between World War I and 2 marked the transition from platform-based industrial trucks to forklifts.  Eugene Clark at Clark Material Handling Co. in Kentucky, USA (pictured) developed the first seated counterbalanced lift truck 1917 called the ‘Tructractor’. Although often referred to today as the first forklift, it did not have forks. (Photo Credit: Supplied by Jim Bowden)

Editor’s note: Forklifts have considerably impacted the material handling space. The seed of their invention was sown during the Industrial Revolution.

During the middle of the 19th century, industrial production was being scaled up fast.

Consequently, there was a need for faster, safer, and more efficient mechanisms for moving materials.

To meet these demands, inventors created a manually propelled sack truck, a precursor to modern forklifts. Consisting of a hand crank affixed to uprights, the sack truck allowed workers to hoist heavy items like grain sacks and milk churns up to 1.5 metres high.

These sack trucks, which were continually modified, proved especially useful for industries such as chemical, gas, and agriculture.

1867 saw the first patent for a device that could lift and transport materials.

The device was simple: an upright frame, a hoist, and a cantilever platform. This mechanism could be attached to a cart and then moved to worksites.

With this invention, workers could move materials horizontally without having to pick them up first physically. Twenty years later, in 1887, the following invention took place. 

The ‘portable elevator’ attempted to improve the earlier 1867 model. It consisted of an elevator mechanism that raised a platform vertically – but only about 5 cm. These simple mobile elevators would lay the foundation for the modern forklift – but not for many years.


  • Jim Bowden

    Jim Bowden, senior editor and co-publisher of Wood Central. Jim brings 50-plus years’ experience in agriculture and timber journalism. Since he founded Australian Timberman in 1977, he has been devoted to the forest industry – with a passion.


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