Autonomous vehicles: How safe are trucks without human drivers?

Experiments are already under way testing out trucks that can drive themselves. But how safe will these juggernauts be without a human at the helm? Mark Piesing reports

When most people think of autonomous vehicles, they think of the self-driving Google Car (or, depending on their vintage, Knight Rider's Kitt). However, almost unnoticed, truck manufacturers such as Scania and Volvo Trucks have begun to play around with the idea of autonomous vehicles.

Hidden away in Australian mines, companies such as Komatsu and Caterpillar have even started to experiment with fully autonomous diggers and dumpsters. Scania is soon to get in on the act as well.

In 2012, Volvo Trucks tried out its autonomous vehicles on public roads for the first time, as part of the European Commission-backed Project Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), which looked at the feasibility of platooning – when a single, lead driver in a truck, using what might be thought of as a kind of digital towbar, controls the speed, steering and braking of two or more trucks or cars, to form a road train.

Now, the EC has just announced the €5.4m (£4.55m) Project Companion, led by Scania, to develop the technology further and explore the legislative changes necessary for this kind of automated road train to run on motorways such as our own M4. So while talk of Amazon's delivery drones have caught the headlines, autonomous trucks may be doing precisely that in about 10 years' time, if the law catches up with the technology.

It may even be that autonomous trucks bring about the kind of surge in economic growth that followed the coming of the railways, with the resulting cut in costs of shifting goods from A to B, and this may well encourage governments to make it happen sooner – even if it won't make truck drivers too happy.

The European Union is already making advanced emergency braking systems (AEBS) – which can take independent action to avoid accidents, and even, in some cases, prevent them – mandatory for all new trucks and coaches in 2018. So if you find the idea of driverless road trains worrying and a little bit too sci-fi (or if you are a truck driver), you might want to stop reading now.

"Yes, we have done it," says Carl Johan Almquist, the traffic and product safety director for Volvo Trucks. "It worked. We have already driven autonomous trucks on public roads in Spain. In 2007, we started our research, and in 2009, Project Sartre began. Perhaps we were even doing this before Google.

"In May 2012, the two trucks and three cars that were involved in Project Sartre took part in a road train that covered 200km [124 miles] in one day in Spain. Although driving at 90km/h [56mph], and only 5m apart, is rather scary." The success of Project Sartre showed, he believes, that the hardware is already in place for something like platooning, as AEBS "is pretty much standard these days on most trucks".

The only addition was the wireless communication between each vehicle, "which was not rocket science, either, as wi-fi is something we are all getting used to".

"It is really exciting," he says, because when the lead driver brakes, the other vehicles brake "instantly". By allowing trucks to drive as close as 5m to each other, many more vehicles can be fitted on to the same road, and both congestion and fuel consumption are reduced.

However, the law is currently a problem. Article 8 of the Vienna Convention states that "Every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or to guide his animals".

But the legal delay, Almquist says, "will give the public time to get used to it. They are probably five or six years behind where the technology is. It will take them some time to understand how fantastic this is. However, road trains like this will only work on motorways. There is a different challenge with delivery trucks. It will take machines more time to do that."

Like Almquist, Sven-Ake Edstrom, the project head for Scania's Intelligent Vehicles programme, believes that "the technology is almost there" for autonomous trucks to become a reality. Scania began its own research into autonomous vehicles in 2009.

While Scania is already looking at a pre-development project on autonomous dumpers to work in closed spaces such as mines, pilot projects such as the system for automatic driving in traffic jams, and lane -keeping assistance systems, are creating the foundations for autonomous trucking on public roads.

"The traffic -jam pilot is semi-autonomous," says Edstrom. "It can drive the truck in a traffic jam up to the speed of 50 km/h without support of the driver, and can reduce fuel consumption by 15 per cent by avoiding any unnecessary braking. Lane-keeping assist keeps you inside the white line and torques the steering wheel in the opposite direction, to alert the driver when they cross over."

Like Almquist, Edstrom believes that the real breakthrough is vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which will allow trucks to communicate wirelessly with other cars and trucks on the road in order to avoid collisions. It will also enable road trains not to be limited to just three or four trucks, although public opinion may well impose that sort of limitation.

"Then, if you had smart roads, they could tell you information about accidents or slippery roads in front of you, so you could dynamically reduce speed and reduce fuel consumption even further," he adds.

To Dominique Bonte, vice president and practice director of ABI Research, it would appear that "the manufacturers are getting more and more bullish about how much of the technology for autonomous trucks is already in place.

"However, even if it is clearly a technology that is getting ready, there is a big difference between driver-ready or semi-autonomous trucks, and the fully autonomous, where there is no driver at all."

It is also important, he believes, to remember that autonomous vehicles are not just a gadget, "as they have enormous social and economic repercussions that we are not aware of. There will be huge resistance from the unions and industrial associations."

It is a technology that is not without its risks, too: "You have to be pretty sure of your technology, given the risk you take of something going wrong on a 20-ton truck."

According to David Alexander, senior analyst at Navigant Research, "what the industry is talking about is 10 years for fully autonomous vehicles and five years for semi-autonomous vehicles. There are issues to do with legislation before full autonomy is allowed.

"There is a big difference between consumer and commercial markets for autonomous vehicles. For consumers, it is about cost, availability and appeal. There is even a fair amount of suspicion out there among older drivers as to what it means. For trucks, there is a very strong business case for fleet operators to reduce numbers of drivers. It is not something that drivers are thrilled about. The big gains from autonomous trucks may even encourage governments to make it happen sooner."

While this is a technology that it is ideal for road trucks doing point-to-point long distances on motorways, Amazon's recent drone package delivery test shows how, using similar technologies, autonomous trucks could deliver small parcels as well.

Carl Johan Almquist believes "we will in the near future be seeing platooning becoming fairly common, as it will save lives and the environment". Different countries will use the technology in different ways, Alexander believes. In Australia, their already huge road trains could become even bigger, with several road trains hooked together under wireless control.

Dominique Bonte believes that autonomous trucks may lead to robots and artificial intelligence. "So, one day, it may be one of Google's humanoid robots stepping out of the driverless truck to deliver the package to your door."

According to the vice president of ABI Research, there are always a million reasons to support something and a million reasons to oppose it. In the case of autonomous trucks, simply, "it is something that is happening". µ

Autonomous trucks: the pros and cons

For

* Reduce fuel consumption to save costs and the planet

* Cut back on congestion as trucks can travel closer together, so will take up less road space

* Eliminate the need to build new roads, as you can fit more trucks on to the existing roads

* Reduce the number of accidents, as autonomous trucks can avoid or mitigate them

* Eliminate truck drivers, who are expensive and, through human error, cause accidents

* Overall, decrease the cost of transporting goods from A to B, and so stimulate economic growth

Against

* Safety – the technology need to be 100 per cent reliable

* They are only going to be truly safe when all vehicles are autonomous

* Job losses, as truck drivers will in the end lose their jobs, though economic growth will also be stimulated

* Not every role may be suitable for autonomous trucks – particularly those off the motorway

Video: Self-parking car unveiled at the CES 2014

Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Travel
Suite dreams: the JW Marriott in Venice
travelChic new hotels in 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Moodle Developer (PHP ,Linux, Apache, MySQL, Moodle)

    £35000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Moodle Developer (PHP ,Linux, Apache...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

    £17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Junior .NET Web Developer - Winform / MVC

    £21000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Award-winning pharma softw...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Java Developer

    £30000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Java Developer is requ...

    Day In a Page

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

    Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

    The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
    Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

    Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

    France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
    Sports Quiz of the Year

    Sports Quiz of the Year

    So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

    Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

    From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

    Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

    Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect