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12 April 2016

Driverless truck convoy shows potential of autonomous logistics

A dozen trucks have completed an autonomous vehicle trial convoy in Europe, travelling for around a week, mostly without a driver at the helm. This is a glimpse at the impending shift in the logistics industry, that is only a few years away from being a transformative commercial reality.

The vehicles, from Volvo, Scania, Iveco, Daimler, MAN (VW Group), and DAF took part in the European Truck Platooning Challenge, which saw the convoys converge in Rotterdam – a fitting destination given that the group was organized by the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment, the Directorate General Rijkswaterstaat, the Netherlands Vehicle Authority, and the Conference of European Directors of Roads.

None of the automakers involved in the trial have explicitly said that they want to totally replace the drivers – but that has to be an eventual end-goal. By selling a vehicle and potentially a lucrative maintenance contract to accommodate the extra miles being travelled, the truck manufacturers would eventually be able to sell fewer vehicles (less demand) at a higher cost, and then profit from the ongoing services associated with the vehicle’s upkeep.

For now, the project is aiming to develop improved driver aids and ADAS systems, which will increase the value of the vehicles to their prospective buyers, but make no mistake – automation of trucking and warehouse operations within logistics are going to be entirely transformative.

Driver wages and fuel costs are the two largest costs for haulage and vehicular freight, and these technologies aim to improve both those areas for the buyers of these vehicles, by reducing the fuel consumption, or (with a few changes in law) increasing the time that a truck can be operational per day – potentially by classing the autonomous driving as a rest period for the drivers.

While that change in law is certainly not being publicly discussed at the moment, the potential 15% fuel savings that are possible through driving in platoons will certainly attract the attention of those looking to buy new fleets in the coming years. The results of an upcoming trial in the port of Rotterdam will go a long way towards convincing logistics stakeholders to embrace autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles in the very near future.

The platoon currently uses WiFi for the data link, with the lead vehicle in the convoy feeding data to those behind it, which also monitor the lead vehicle using radar – to ensure that they adjust their speed to match the frontrunner. The 802.11p standard seems well placed to win vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications like the ones used in the trucks, but also for allowing the vehicles to communicate to other devices around them (V2X), so that a convoy, city, or country can build up a very accurate picture of the condition of the roads from this crowd-sourced data.

Strict legislation prevents most truckers in Europe from driving for longer than nine hours per day, and as truckers tend not to work in pairs, this means that for all those other hours in the day, the truck is an idle asset. Consequently, an autonomous truck would not be limited by the human at the wheel, and pending infrastructure upgrades, could work continuously.

Of course, it will have to stop at its destinations, to be unloaded, but the two main times for stopping will be for refueling and for maintenance. Aside from pushing some form of autonomous fuel system, or simply hiring more manual attendants at fuel stations, fuel-stops could become part of the logistics chain – integrated at the warehouses or ports that are frequent destinations for the vehicles.

Maintenance could also be managed in a similar manner, with site engineers servicing vehicles as they arrive, but for all but the smallest jobs, it would be easier to route the trucks to a dedicated servicing depot, and eat the small cost in downtime that has been paid for with the increased efficiency of the vehicle’s improved driving hours.

But while the autonomous truck will gain you more miles-travelled per vehicle than a traditional truck, it will inevitably cost more. The trigger for mass adoption will be the moment when the executives can see an almost-guaranteed improvement to their bottom line if they adopt the technology. At that point, it becomes a simple business decision.

Regulatory approval is needed, but for most governments, there will be a strong incentive to approve automated freight vehicles, as the deadliest accidents on roads tend to involve these trucks. Sometimes, the drivers themselves are to blame, as many work while dangerously tired – although stricter digital tachographs have meant that police forces are better able to manage and prevent these abuses.

However, a lot of crashes that involve these trucks are the fault of smaller vehicles on the road, not giving them adequate braking distances – treating them like any other car on the road, when they are actually far more potentially dangerous and should be treated with more care.

With a hyper-vigilant computer system monitoring the road, the safety record of these trucks might significantly improve. A computer can’t fall asleep at the wheel, or drive intoxicated, and would be more vigilant in maintaining safe braking distances. While it can’t prevent human drivers from colliding with it, a computer at the wheel should ensure that the deadliest collisions on the roads are significantly reduced.

Highway driving is a more straightforward task than the much more fluid and dynamic city-center driving. The high-speeds of the highways are when trucks are most lethal, so it makes practical sense to introduce autonomous tech here, eventually moving all the way down the stack towards urban driving – where the chances of being involved in a 60mph crash are virtually zero, but clipping a parked car or crushing a pedestrian are much higher.

For the legislators, the adoption curve will be a balancing act. The entire logistics industry is on the verge of being transformed by autonomous technology. Warehouse operators and truck drivers are jobs that are likely to be increasingly operated by machines rather than humans – and that switch will happen when the capitalists running the corporations see a balance sheet incentive to do so. That shift is coming, it’s just hard to put a precise date on it.

In terms of lobbying, the workers unions will oppose such a shift, but the potential improvements in safety are hard to argue against in a PR-friendly manner – as you would be arguing that jobs are more important than people’s lives, and that’s an argument you’re never going to win in the court of public opinion.