When it comes to opinions on self-driving vehicles or more specifically driverless trucks, people very much fall into one of two camps; the traditionalist drivers, who like to feel the power of their car and the lazy commuter, who sees driving as a chore.
The traditionalists shake their heads in dismay at the thought of the roads being populated only by self-driving cars and the lazy commuters cannot wait! But what happens when we throw commercial vehicles into the mix? With the UK to start self-driving lorry trials next year, it is a situation the British driving public will have to deal with much sooner than anyone had thought.
When driving on motorways or major dual carriageways, there’s little more frustrating than a lorry struggling to overtake another lorry – it’s frustrating for HGV drivers too! One way around this is platooning: a system where a fleet of lorries follows the vehicle at the front. It’s like a convoy, but automated.
Automated platooning, as demonstrated in the Volvo video below, helps trucks drive more efficiently. This can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by ten percent, which can only be a long-term benefit for us all.
Running lorries in platoons involve all of the vehicles being connected through Wi-Fi. An access point in each vehicle’s cab lets them communicate with a local network between the three trucks, the vehicles following the lead lorry all copy the actions of the driver: when the brakes are applied, the entire fleet slows down at the same time. Essentially, when the autonomous trucks are in platooning mode all but the lead vehicles are self-driving and because the robot driving trucks two and three can react so much quicker than a human driver they can travel much closer together.
The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has been awarded the government contract to carry out the trials of automated platooning on the roads of the UK. The tests will take place in three different stages, with the vehicles being built by engineering firm Ricardo. These include testing three lorries on a test track in platooning mode, simulating the vehicles moving together and also the tests on real roads. The area of the UK where the platoons will operate has not yet been announced, the TRL says trials will take place on a motorway or other major road.
We at LTS Distribution want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion, there’s always congestion in Birmingham, but are we convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way ahead? The UK has some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries than other road networks. Platooning may work on the Autobahn or on miles and miles of deserted freeways, but can it work for the UK? When we discussed this in the office these were the five questions and concerns that were raised:
Will the platoon of driverless trucks block motorists trying to leave or enter the motorway?
The TRL says it will carefully choose sections of a motorway for its trials, taking the number of junctions and traffic into account. All the lorries will have drivers behind the wheel who will be able to take control and break up the convoy to let other drivers join or leave the motorway if there is an obstruction.
Does this mean a rise in unemployment amongst the driving profession?
There is currently a shortage of drivers in the UK and depending on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, this could reduce the numbers even more. But even with the most advanced automation, robotics and artificial intelligence cannot undertake all the tasks drivers perform at the collection point, on the road or at the delivery destination, so rather than drivers losing their jobs, their duties will change as the industry works out man-machine partnerships.
What about insurance? Who’s liable if there’s an accident, the software provider, manufacturer or the company running the vehicle?
A precedent has already been set for automakers to take full responsibility — Volvo said in 2015 that it will accept full liability in the event its self-driving car gets in a crash.
That means manufacturers will be more liable than ever before as the burden is no longer on a driver to properly control the vehicle.
How will self-driving lorries be fueled?
The commercial vehicle industry appears very interested in Elon Musk’s proposed battery-powered heavy-duty vehicle, which can compete with conventional diesel trucks and travel up to 1,000 miles on a single tank of fuel. So realistically the vehicle will refuel as normal back at the depot.
What about physical checks to ensure a load is safe?
If we’re thinking full automation here then there are Automatic truck loading systems, or ATLS, that use robotic forklifts to move pallets on and off trucks, but they depend on predictable loads that are of a “relatively standard size and weight”, similar to ‘standard’ freight that currently goes through pallet network deliveries. Load Managers will be needed for quality control. A driver or another operative will be required to physically check to make sure that the pallets are loaded safely, securely and are not damaged in any way. But none of that warns the warehouse operative unloading at the other end if the freight has moved during transit.
Automated vehicles are yet another bolt-on to the “Internet of Things” and the advancement in this technology is something we are going to see evolve quickly over the next decades. With major players involved Waymo, Uber, Tesla, Volvo and Daimler Trucks, all working to bring driverless lorries to market, you can be sure this is no fad.
From our Managing Director, Dave Hands’ perspective,
“as a Birmingham based transport and Logistics Company, reducing emissions and congestion is a great thing, and in an ever competitive world of transport and haulage contractors savings made through fuel economy, insurance costs and wages will have a significant impact on the bottom line of transport and distribution companies. Saying that, It is very rare that we would send 3 vehicles in convoy or platooning like mentioned above so we think it’s fair to say that although testing of vehicles may begin in 2018 we are a good few years away from seeing driverless trucks delivering on behalf of our customers, well unless we get asked to trial one of course!”
Images Courtesy of Container Hill Truckpics