Not driverless, but “connected” trucks

In my December column last year I looked at the emergence of autonomous driving systems that are being developed by car and truck manufactures alike and how some in the media have reported these vehicles as “driverless”. I explained that trials of Level 3 autonomous trucks had taken place in very controlled environments and conditions and I discussed how a truly driverless truck, a so-called ‘Level 5’ autonomous vehicle, was likely to be quite some years away from being a reality on our roads.

This month I thought that I would comment on an associated technology that could be deployed much more quickly and have significant safety and productivity benefits for our nation, that of the “connected vehicle”. Connected vehicles, or as the technology is more commonly known, Co-operative Intelligent Transport Systems (C-ITS), is a system that allows C-ITS vehicles to communicate with each other, with infrastructure, even with pedestrians and bike riders.

The concept is quite simple: vehicles with C-ITS technology transmit and receive information electronically. This information is typically broken into two specific message types, Safety Critical, details such as vehicle speed, direction, location, weight, width, length and general information, these messages include traffic congestion, weather and speed zones.

Of course many in the truck industry have been using a basic form of this technology for years, with truckies communicating to each other by UHF and VHF radios, swapping information on road, traffic and weather conditions and no doubt other industry gossip. C-ITS vehicles would have the ability to take this level of communication to a whole other level, sending and receiving information such as surrounding vehicle locations, speed, traffic and environment updates. The C-ITS systems would digest, sort and process all information, only relaying what is relevant to the driver based on their current location, direction of travel, speed and destination, doing so by way of visual or audible messages or warnings within the cab of the truck.

Imagine being told the available parking spots in the next three or four rest areas you were approaching, or the diesel price at the service stations along the road you were currently traveling, not to mention traffic congestion updates or the traffic light phasing for the set of lights that you were approaching. Even better still, those traffic lights receive information from your truck and change their phasing to allow your loaded rig to pass on an extended green light, saving time, fuel and reducing overall traffic congestion caused by delays to vehicle flows in having to accelerate a 60 tonne B-double from a standstill at a red light. Similarly emergency vehicles would receive traffic light priority on route to an accident or similar. The potential for safety and productivity gains with C-ITS technology are immense.

The technology for connected vehicles already exists around the globe and I am pleased to say that much of the cutting edge technology being tested by overseas car and truck manufacturers is being developed right here in Australia. There are even local trials of this technology underway. However unlike the USA, Japan and more recently Europe, Australian regulators have not yet specified the technical parameters for C-ITS systems.
Without a clear statement of intent, or regulation by the Federal Government, truck and car OEM’s cannot bring C-ITS technology to market here in Australia. Unregulated vehicle C-ITS systems could disrupt or corrupt existing phone, TV and communication networks, worse still, existing electronic devices such as mobile phones could corrupt vehicle C-ITS safety messages with disastrous results.

Considering that the average age of a truck in Australia currently stands just shy of 14 years, trucks sold this year will likely still be on our roads in 2044. Every new truck sale without this potentially life-saving C-ITS technology is a missed opportunity to further improve road safety in our country. Our governments cannot sit back and wait for this technology to evolve before acting. The potential safety benefits for truck drivers, other road users and the general public are massive. However without a clear direction and some form of regulation by government, truck (and car) OEMs cannot effectively bring this connected vehicle safety technology to Australia…

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