The driverless truck –  science fiction or reality?

Let us start with definitions, which are required to understand the technologies at play. Automotive automation experts have defined six levels of vehicle control. At Level Zero: Manual Driving, the driver controls all vehicle functions. 

Level One: Driver Assistance has some functions that can be controlled by the vehicle, such as cruise control and ABS, which have been available in most vehicles for many years.

Level Two: Partial Automation, has both steering and acceleration/braking functions that can be controlled by the vehicle under particular conditions. Emergency autonomous braking, self-parking and lane keeping systems as well as adaptive cruise control are all examples of Level Two automation seen in higher-end vehicles available today.

In Level Three: Conditional Automation, vehicle systems control all driving tasks under limited conditions, but the driver must be prepared to take back control when prompted by the vehicle, typically within a few seconds.

At Level Four: High Automation, driving tasks are controlled by the vehicle in the majority of situations, the driver does not need to monitor the driving environment and the automated systems will bring the vehicle to a safe stop if the driver does not respond to requests to take back control.

Finally Level Five: Full Automation, where the vehicle controls all driving tasks 100 per cent of the time and, in theory, no driver is required.

The truck trialled in Nevada was a Level Three self-driving vehicle, which is still two significant steps away from being “driverless”.  A Level Three truck could be best compared to autopilot in a commercial aircraft, which controls the in-flight functions of the plane, but the pilot takes control for the tricky stuff such as take-offs, landings and adverse weather conditions. Level Three vehicle systems uses a raft of technologies such as cameras, radar, GPS positioning, servo motors and computers to monitor and perform self-driving functions, however all these technologies have their limitations. Cameras and radar are effected by adverse weather conditions, GPS systems can “drop out” and won’t work in tunnels, and computers are subject to “crashing” and are only as smart as those programming them, which is why the driver is there ready to take back control of the vehicle at any time.

Another important reason that the driver is there to resume control is a legal one. Vehicle manufacturers are cautious by nature and while the driver remains in ultimate control, he/she is responsible for the vehicle’s safety. This responsibility effectively transfers to the vehicle when Level Four and Five systems are deployed. It is the combination of both current technical shortcomings and potential litigation that may prevent trucks from moving beyond Level Three automation for many years to come.

Not that I see this to be a problem, as there are substantial safety benefits to be gained from Level Three conditional vehicle automation systems. Such controls will take away many of the mundane tasks performed by the average truck driver, such as lane keeping on our inter-city highways and maintaining safe distances between other road users, thus allowing the driver to be relaxed and rested for the more complex driving tasks – just as the autopilot reduces fatigue and increases safety in the aviation industry.

I do however see a much larger problem looming in the Australian trucking industry, being the uptake of these new safer vehicle technologies. With the average age of the Australian truck fleet fast approaching 14 years, there are simply too few companies renewing their aging trucks and this will significantly hamper the uptake of new generation, safer trucks. Governments cannot ignore our aging truck fleet. There needs to be a whole of government approach including financial incentives, such as those proposed in TIC’s National Truck Plan, to foster the uptake of safer truck technology.

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