Light Years

Transurban logo on webpage.

Innately humans are hungry for future direction, as Patrick White pointed out in The Tree of Man, since “the present will not wait. It is itself potential future.”

In politics all roads await funding.

By mid-April, Wednesday the 17th to be exact, motorway operator Transurban announced it would, with partner Plus, a Silicon Valley-based software company, advance its fledgling automated freight program.

The trial, Transurban promised, was a step up from its first Automated Truck Trial which had involved a “highly automated” Hino 700 “drive itself” along sections — 370 kilometres all up — of CityLink and the toll-free Monash Freeway in Melbourne.

These self-driving connected and automated vehicle (CAV) trials, Transurban had been at pains to point out, were undertaken previously with driver assistance on its roads.

The Hino, on the first heavy vehicle evaluation, was tested primarily on how it communicated with its immediate surroundings, namely line markings and variable speed limit signs.

As far as we know all went well.

Perhaps since Plus’s technology had already been tested on public roads in Germany with IVECO, a pair of S-Ways, the latest vastly improved prime mover from the Italian commercial vehicle manufacturer, would commence the trial on the 18th, the day following the recent announcement.

The trial route was to expand incrementally, with time spent on road and distance travelled in autonomous mode increasing over time, in line with safety protocols. But it didn’t.

On Thursday of the next morning the Transport Workers’ Union, rarely discouraged by lack of notice, issued a media release calling for an immediate stop to the “shambolic” trials in Victoria until proper consultation processes were established with the industry, community stakeholders and the State Government, for whom it reserved uncharacteristic invective.

There was a need for action, the union declared, but not this kind of action.

Transport was dangerous and already subject to deadly pressures. The safety and regulatory frameworks currently in place, it said, therefore would need to undergo re-evaluation.

The trial, the TWU also warned, would result in major delays to the critical distribution of freight.

That is, the automated freight program was going to prevent from happening the very thing it was launched to help solve.

Fitted with sensors, cameras and other Level 4 self-driving technology, the IVECOs were to be driven at night, in a virtual dedicated lane, with a supervising driver and engineer on-board at all times under dedicated traffic control room supervision — hardly the bleak opening of the movie Wolverine in which driverless Class 8 rigs roared like behemoths across a dystopian landscape.

Nevertheless, it was labelled a rushed bureaucratic pipe dream.

“The community’s safety and the futures of our truck drivers are jeopardized due to this poorly executed plan,” said a TWU spokesman who when they spoke apparently spoke in American. Something Transurban understood fluently.

It shut down the project within 24 hours, a feat that would appear contrary to a statement it had made earlier about the rigorous testing undertaken ahead of the April trial. It could resist transparency but not government intervention.

Level 4 autonomy is understood to mean a vehicle’s automated driving system is in total control, with which one caveat might be added — providing it isn’t turned into a political football.

Transport networks, for all their complexity, soon grow dull when compared to the web of patronage that makes things work and, as the case may increasingly be, not work.

In Melbourne, where the winters tend to drag on, that is, for many, an outcome in itself.

  1. Australian Truck Radio Listen Live
Send this to a friend