Who is steering this truck?

The discussion and hype surrounding autonomous (driverless) vehicles and technologies continue to build both overseas and here in Australia, but what are the practical benefits and realities of such technologies?

Much has been made of the claims that self-driving vehicles will be ‘much’ safer than us humans. For a while now we have been told that the main advantage of moving to driverless cars and trucks is to reduce crashes, because we are all such bad drivers. Well just how true is that?

In a discussion paper released by a couple of researchers from the Californian PATH (Partners for Advanced Transportation Technology) program in late 2015 – a paper that has not received much airtime by those pushing the autonomous vehicle agenda in Australia – some interesting statistics indicate the human driver is not doing such a bad job behind the wheel of an automobile. Based on vehicle use data for cars and trucks, overlayed with crash data from the whole of the US, a fatal vehicle crash occurs once every 3.3 million driving hours. Given that US vehicle use is not that different to ours, and their vehicle-to-population ratio is also similar to that found in Australia, one could conclude that these US numbers would be quite relevant in the Australian context. That poses the question, does one think that an autonomous vehicle will be able to travel 3.3 million hours without a problem, hiccup, computer glitch, misinterpretation of a situation, etc., that might lead to a fatal accident? These numbers actually show just how difficult it will be for car and truck manufacturers to develop driverless technologies that will outperform us ‘poor’ human drivers.

That is not to say that we could not benefit from the autonomous vehicle technologies that are currently being developed, far from it. It would be very useful to have an on-board vehicle system that is constantly monitoring what a driver is doing, whether he or she is making mistakes or departing from a chosen lane on a regular basis, and indicating when a driver is tired and in need of a rest. The truck could automatically send a warning back to the fleet controller, who could then radio or phone the driver and request them to stop and rest. Or the truck could be programmed to signal to the driver that there is a driver rest area just ahead and that the truck will de-power just before the rest area and will not return to maximum power for a period of time, forcing the weary driver off the road into the rest area for that much-required nap. These are just a couple of potential safety scenarios that could be programmed into a truck with autonomous, or semi-autonomous systems. The ‘sweet spot’ for heavy-vehicle safety may not be a fully autonomous/driverless truck, not in the short- to mid-term, but in fact the continued presence of a human wheel attendant supported by a raft of advanced safety systems including some degree of autonomous functionality.

Of course the above may be completely academic here in Australia, because with one of the oldest truck fleets in the western world – just shy of an average age of 14 years for trucks over 4.5 tonne Gross Vehicle Mass (GVM) – trucks sold today, and for that matter any time this year, will likely still be on our roads in 2045. At the current old-truck retirement rate it would take approximately 28 years for autonomous trucks to replace the country’s current human-driven versions if we started with this technology today, hardly a suitable outcome for road-user safety. If Australian governments, both federal and state, want to see the uptake of new trucks with the latest safety and environmental technologies and features they must consider incentives such as cheaper vehicle registration costs, tax breaks – including accelerated depreciation of a new truck purchase, additional mass and length, up-front monetary incentives for the purchase of a new rig, or similar. The opportunity is ever present for our politicians to steer this important agenda.

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