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Planning Your Path To A Driverless Future

Data Blocks
Data Blocks

At the end of October, a truck drove 190 kilometres across Colorado to make a delivery. This would not be remarkable, even though it was carrying 50,000 cans of beer, except it was the world’s first successful shipment by a self-driving truck.

With stories like this and those about the ongoing development of driverless cars, the move towards autonomous vehicles has shifted up a gear. It’s only going to gain momentum.

But for all the headlines, we have a long way to go before it’s an everyday reality. Even the landmark beer delivery had a driver on board because the technology is only suitable for highways today. He drove part of the way at both ends of the journey but spent the rest of the trip hanging out in the sleeper compartment.

A Journey Of Many Steps

Automation is not just a switch that gets flicked overnight from the current situation to completely self-driving trucks. In the coming decade, we’ll go through a series of steps on the way. The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE International) has identified five stages of automation, delineated based on ‘who does what when’:

  • Level 0 – A human driver does everything.
  • Level 1 – Automated systems assist the driver with some tasks.
  • Level 2 – Automated systems do some of the driving tasks, but a driver does others and monitors the situation.
  • Level 3 – Automated systems do some of the driving and monitor the driving environment, but the driver is ready to take back control when the system requests it.
  • Level 4 – Automated systems can do everything, but only under certain conditions.
  • Level 5 – Automated systems can perform all driving tasks, under all conditions.

What Does This Mean For Us?

Most of the current demonstrations in heavy vehicles fall under Levels 3 and 4, which is significant because unlike earlier levels, automation plays a starring, not supporting role. This means it’s time to start thinking about your next move because it’s not a matter of if, but when.

In the Land Transport Regulation 2040 papers, which were released by the National Transport Commission (NTC) to coincide with ITS World Congress held in Melbourne recently, automation was described as “as the most significant factor likely to affect transport over the coming decades”.

The government is already talking about the role it will play in shaping Australia’s approach, as the NTC considers whether current regulations will affect the ability to roll out new products and services and if the government should regulate ahead of the adoption curve.

This question of when to jump is also facing transport operators. In a KPMG survey on the effect of autonomous vehicles in the insurance industry, it outlined partial driver substitution happening as early as next year through to 2020. The next phase, fully autonomous vehicles will be from 2020 to 2025. Between then and 2040, we will have both vehicle-to-vehicle communications and sensors working together to create a converged network. It’s been estimated that autonomous vehicles could reduce the frequency of collisions by 80 per cent compared to current statistics.

Some transport operators will look to gain maximum advantage from the coming disruption. Others will hold back to get a sense of what works before acting. Whatever approach you decide to take, ignoring the rise of autonomous vehicles is not an option.

Improving Safety

There are many advantages to be gained. We’ve already seen the improvements to safety that innovations such as Electronic Work Diaries (EWDs) deliver because it’s easier for drivers to comply with fatigue rules. More automation will help with fleet safety. In the short term, adoption of driverless technology in certain situations, such as the loading and unloading of trucks, frees drivers from activities that would otherwise eat into their work hours, allowing them to take their break and be ready for the next job.

Similarly, with platooning, a technique in which a convoy of trucks in a convoy share information such as road conditions, only the driver in the front vehicle needs to be at the wheel because turns are signalled to the trucks that follow it. The other drivers can perform the, often unpaid, administrative tasks of the role or even rest in cabin to ensure compliance with fatigue management rules.

The Bottom Line

Autonomous vehicles react more quickly than a human, which improves safety, but there are also cost benefits. Already, fleet analytics are providing managers with greater visibility into their business costs. This allows them to, for instance, track fuel costs and identify how they can be reduced.

As we move into higher levels of automation, and the driver becomes more of a conductor rather than the musician playing the instrument, the savings will be even greater. The number of stop and starts a heavy vehicle makes can play an enormous role in fuel consumption, so with the ability to communicate with traffic lights to create “green corridors” stops can be minimised. When they can’t be avoided, harsh breaking can be eliminated through advanced warnings.

The Road Ahead

While it’s unlikely we’ll see fully autonomous vehicles become mainstream in the immediate future, they’re not far away and there are many steps along the way that will disrupt the transport industry. As the government formulates its response to the arrival of this technology, now’s the time to start contemplating your approach so your business isn’t left in the dust. 

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