Convoys of semi-autonomous trucks, heavy-goods vehicles re-jigged to allow the driver to take a rest, and more besides. These technologies are on the rise and are all moving towards the advent of the driverless vehicle. So what are the risks and consequences?
In the United States today trucks are used to transport close to 67% of all merchandise by weight, according to the American Trucking Association. In many parts of Europe as well, goods transportation is mainly by road. So what if all these goods were carried by autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks? This makes sense, but raises a lot of questions. What role would truck drivers then play? Is the general public ready to accept these new vehicles? Below L’Atelier takes a look at the current overall situation and tries to provide some of the answers.
‘Automation cooperative system’ and ‘platooning’: two types of semi-autonomous convoys
According to Steven E. Shladover, we are still decades away from seeing driverless trucks on the roads. At the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Berkeley he heads up the California PATH (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) research and development programme which, since it was set up thirty years ago, has led the way in research into intelligent transport systems.
The basic premises of the self-driving vehicle have been around for several years. In the early 2000s, for instance, PATH was already experimenting with truck platooning whereby a number of ‘connected’ vehicles follow in automated mode behind the first in line, which is the only one actually being driven. Recently the Netherlands authorities held a contest – the ‘European Truck Platooning Challenge’ – to promote platooning. Six European truck manufacturers took part, testing their automated trucks on European roads leading to the Port of Rotterdam and all arrived safely at their destination. However, there is still some way to go before the processes and procedures can be generalised. Different brands of truck cannot always ‘connect’ with each other and regulation has not yet been harmonised at European level with the result that the mandatory safety distances vary from one country to another. In the United States, Mountain View-based startup Peloton is testing its version of this technology in Texas and Utah. In addition to enabling cost savings, these semi-autonomous trucks are said to be safer, given that 90% of all road accidents are down to human error.
The PATH teams are working on a similar process known as the ‘automation cooperative system’. Their truck is not yet autonomous but is on track to become so. As with truck platooning, their vehicles follow and communicate with each other. Explains Steven Shladover: “Each truck sends messages which describe its behaviour, the others receive the information and adjust their speed accordingly. It’s an improved version of the adaptive cruise control system. The radar measures the distance between the vehicles in the same way except that it’s collaborative, which means they can know what the others are doing. The difference is that the heavy goods vehicle chooses whether or not to accept other vehicles in the platoon while with the automation cooperative system each driver can choose whether to join or leave the convoy.” With his technology, control of the braking system can be delegated to the computer which regulates the speed so as to maintain the right safety distance from the vehicle in front. One great advantage is that “earlier trials have shown that the system can save 10 to 15% in energy costs,” Shladover points out – an outcome which is likely to please road haulage firms.
And what about single trucks? The semi-autonomous Daimler truck is currently being tested in Nevada and the technology developed by PATH could be on the market in the next two years, but trucking firms will nevertheless have to wait a while before they can deploy driverless heavy goods vehicles routinely on our roads. Steven Shladover reckons that “in order to dispense with the truck driver in normal traffic conditions we’ll have to develop a system with an incredible level of security that so far no-one has managed to master.” The advanced transportation technology expert says that this type of vehicle could well be driving in a separate, dedicated highway lane within ten or twenty years, and out on the motorway among other vehicles in thirty to forty. However, “right in the midst of city traffic, among pedestrians and cyclists, we’ll have to wait at least sixty years before we see that,” he predicts.
Futuristic project, many consequences
Shladover thinks however that it is simply out of the question to do away with a human driver behind the steering wheel. “In our trucks, the driver remains in control and activates or de-activates the automated driving system that will regulate the space between the vehicles depending on weather and traffic conditions.” Nor is the PATH system designed to enable the driver to rest or do something else. “That’s how the driver of the Tesla got killed a few weeks ago; he was trying to do something else. The system isn’t designed for that and his full attention was needed”. In fact, the vehicle’s log shows that the autopilot was disabled at the time of the crash. For the moment, the primary aim of companies building autonomous or semi-autonomous trucks is not to abolish the job of truck driver but rather to reduce driver stress. This is also what Otto – a fledgling firm founded by 15 former Google employees – is offering, with a kit designed to make heavy goods vehicles autonomous by using sensors and software. Quoted on backchannel, one of the Otto founders explained that he wanted his “technology to allow a driver to sleep in his cabin completely safely while the truck was moving,” as this would allow drivers to get around legislation forbidding truckers to drive more than eleven hours per day.
Despite what the entrepreneurs are currently saying, it is worth asking whether having a human driver sitting in a self-driving truck is not in fact just an intermediate step before doing without the driver entirely. In fact autonomous vehicle technology is quite likely to automate – and thus kill – a lot of jobs, argues Ryan Petersen, CEO of Netherlands-based freight forwarder Flexport. This would affect 1% of US manpower, amounting to millions of jobs. However, there is no denying that this work is dangerous, given that more truck drivers – 835 – are killed on the job every year than workers in any other occupation in the United States. So it does make sense for road haulage firms to look at using autonomous trucks, both for business and other reasons.
This also explains why autonomous haulage trucks are expected to hit the highways before other self-driving vehicles. As Steven Shladover sees it: “It’ll probably take longer for cars to be completely autonomous because there’s less profit in this area, it’s more a matter of convenience. But when it comes to trucks, they’re owned by a company, which will take a financial decision that enables it to cut costs.”
Companies may indeed perhaps be ready to embrace this new technology, but there is no guarantee that the general public will see things their way. The concerns that many US and European citizens have about self-driving vehicles may be even greater when it comes to driverless trucks as the consequences are likely to be more serious in the event of an accident.
According to a survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), 60% of French people polled are in favour of self-driving cars, compared with 50% of US and 36% of Japanese respondents. But while autonomous vehicle technology seems to have greater appeal in France than in many other developed countries, 51% of those who are not yet happy with the technology said that they were not convinced about the safety aspect, while 45% saw not having full control over one’s own vehicle as a major drawback. The possibility of having one’s vehicle hijacked, as already happened in 2015, is understandably worrying.
Paradoxically, a report based on the Self-Driving Cars survey conducted by BCG in the US indicated that respondents’ number one reason for buying a completely autonomous car is ‘increased safety’! Proof – if proof were needed – of how convoluted the path to adoption of autonomous vehicle technology is likely to be.