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Self-driving trucks: a realistic prospect for commercial fleets?

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THE UK government gave the green light in March’s Budget for trials of self-driving trucks, confirming media reports that appeared earlier in the month that they would be tested on a quiet stretch of the M6 motorway in Cumbria.

The trials will consider the viability of platooning lorries in a convoy of up to ten HGVs, which is led by a driver in the leading truck. In the budget the government says it wants the UK to become “a global centre for excellence in both connected and autonomous vehicles”, and so even driverless cars will be trialled on UK roads by 2017.

Autonomous vehicle trials have been carried out in the US by companies such as Ford and Google, and there has only been one recorded accident. In spite of this fact not everyone is sure that the platooning concept is viable and feasible for UK roads. Edmund King, president of roadside recovery firm AA, says his organisation supports the development of connected technology to the extent that it has launched its own company, Intelmatics Europe, in conjunction with the AA’s partners.

Yet he believes the problems could arise with the use of large truck platoons on the UK motorway network because it is the most intensively used and it has “many more junctions than motorways in Europe or indeed the world”. In his view it would be very difficult to have a 44 tonne, ten-lorry platoon the length of two football pitches, “because other vehicles need to get past the platoon to enter or exit the road and it might also cause problems by blocking signs”. On smart motorways with no hard shoulders, he also warns that there would be nowhere to stop should the platoon develop problems.

The AA’s research suggests that people aren’t quite ready for the self-driving truck and truck platooning concepts, too. King explains: “We know from our research with members that they are nervous about sharing the road with fully automated self-driving vehicles, and in an AA-Populus poll [of 23,450 members], 57% thought driverless vehicles should be segregated on dedicated lanes away from other traffic and 56% wouldn’t trust assurances that driverless vehicles were safe.” He nevertheless believes that new vehicle technologies can play an important role in improving safety, making drivers feel more relaxed and they can be developed to reduce congestion on Britain’s roads.

Changing realities
In spite of these reservations the government’s support has been welcomed, by experts such as Alex Holt, partner and head of telecoms at management consultancy KPMG. “While some people may be terrified about the prospect of autonomous vehicles on the streets of the UK, in my view it’s a reality they’ll need to get used to.” To achieve this he thinks the government needs to work with industry to encourage multi-million pound investments in telecoms infrastructure.

What urgently has to happen is the development of “seamless, high-quality and ultra-fast fixed and mobile connectivity for the safe deployment of connected vehicles”. Companies also need long-term assurance, and so he would like to see Ofcom’s Digital Communications Review being completed sooner, rather than later, to put firms at ease to the point that they will feel comfortable about writing cheques for large sums of money to invest in telecoms infrastructure and connected vehicles.

CFO excitement
Tim Lawlor, CFO at logistics provider Wincanton, is also excited by the new technology. He believes that it will inevitability affect his business and driverless trucks will require investment. Yet for now the technology is embryonic.

“We are monitoring a number of elements that will come out of this technology and one area of it is platooning,” he says. Why? Well, it is claimed that platooning allows heavy goods vehicles to travel only a few metres apart from each other, and it’s said that this practice can offer significant fuel savings.

“However, businesses will need to collaborate in order to create platoons of up to ten trucks travelling in the same direction, so this is an area of opportunity for Wincanton and for companies like us because we would be able to bring customers together to create the necessary level of collaboration,” he says.

How companies use the technology isn’t quite certain – further thought and development is required, and the trials should enable everyone to work out what works in reality and what doesn’t.

For example, Lawlor agrees with King that roads with a number of entrances and exits may limit the feasibility of using long truck platoons. “Perhaps this will mean that platoons can only be used at certain times of day, or on certain roads, or platoons might frequently need to break and reform,” he says.

Lawlor also thinks that the benefits of the technology may not be those that have initially been envisaged, but in many cases autonomous trucks are following the driverless car market. In future there will not only be self-parking cars, but also self-manoeuvring trucks to make manoeuvring safer.

Not all driverless
“There are a lot of developments and they aren’t all driverless,” says Lawlor. “There’s the in-cab technology and the use of mobile devices and wireless technologies to provide more efficient and environmentally user-friendly utilisation of our fleet, and we are introducing electric tankers for our customers in the dairy industry to provide greater efficiency and to cut carbon emissions.” In addition to these developments, technology is be developed to improve route mapping and shared load planning.

For the moment, though, Lawlor has no plans to invest in self-driving trucks. Not only is the technology at the early stages of its development, it’s also not clear what the return on investment will be of owning or renting autonomous trucks.

“While the expectation is that the technology will be competitive, it may be that the early incarnations are no more competitive than manual driving, and so as a finance director I will be looking at the financials of this as the driverless trucks evolve,” he says. As well as ROI Lawlor says he will also need to consider the cost of the fleet, the cost of usage including fuel efficiency, the cost of insurance and the environmental impact – including emissions and the practicality of the fleets to deliver and improve customer services.

Users and usage
Phil Harrold, partner in assurance at management consultancy PwC, thinks that driverless vehicle technologies will mainly be used for large articulated lorries because “that’s where you would gain more efficiencies”.

Operating them in cities may also be more difficult than on open, straight roads where concepts such as platoons will be easier to manage, and where the technology is likely to work best because the trucks need to operate like a train in order to become more efficient than they currently are with drivers in individual vehicles at the helm.

The trucks themselves, in his view, are likely to be used by companies “moving aggregates, timber, foodstuff such as potatoes coming in from Lincolnshire to a sorting depot outside the London area, and you may see the pattern of distribution changing as driverless trucks become accepted – realistically in ten years’ time”.

Before widespread adoption can occur, Harrold says there needs to be more public debate and a determination of who is responsible in the event of a collision. He adds that there is also potentially a big home delivery market for supermarkets who could user driverless smaller vehicles to make their deliveries.

Like with HGVs, drivers won’t necessarily be made completely redundant. They will be needed as a pilot whose plan mostly runs on auto-pilot – primarily for safety reasons, but they could also take on new responsibilities such as the loading and offloading of goods.

Promising future
Kina Wileke, senior vice-president at Volvo Group Headquarters’ External Corporate Communication department concludes: “The Volvo Group has for several years been looking into the possibilities of autonomous drives and we do believe that during the coming years we will see a gradual shift with a higher grade of automation in our vehicles. However, large-scale full automation is still quite far away and so at this stage it is fairly difficult to give detailed information about its implications for the UK.”

So the extent to which driverless trucks are viable is yet to be seen, and Sahar Danesh, principal policy advisor at the Institute of Engineering and Technology, reminds us that “the recently announced trials will be able to answer this question and determine what parts of the UK roads would benefit more from autonomous technology”.

She nevertheless supports the view that there is huge commercial potential for freight operators, citing that the required radar and Lidar technologies are already becoming more accurate and the algorithms to decipher their signals are becoming more complex. Autonomous vehicle technology therefore seems to have a promising and viable future.

mining-trucksCase study: Rio Tinto
Driverless trucks are already being used by mining giant Rio Tinto in Pilbara, situated in the outback of Australia. They can run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. According to a report in Business Insider, the idea behind them is to cut “the need for high-risk jobs where employees face rough working conditions in extreme heat and often suffer from extreme fatigue”.

The Financial Times has also reported that the company is already seeing some noticeable benefits from the deployment of the driverless trucks, which are transporting 20 million tonnes of iron ore every month. It’s claimed that they have the potential to save 500 working hours per year. Similarly, in the European Union truck drivers are required to take frequent breaks, costing time and money, but autonomous trucks won’t need to stop. They will be able to keep on driving.

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