Sunday, June 19, 2011

Driverless Technology Is No Threat To Freight Truck Drivers - Yet

Schemes to Negate Human Error Proceed Apace
Shipping News Feature

WORLDWIDE – The dream of a car or truck which happily transports passengers and freight without the assistance of a man or woman at the wheel has been around as long as the internal combustion engine. Many will have heard the tale of the purchaser of a new RV who upon seeing ‘Cruise Control’ on the dashboard engaged it whilst on the freeway and retired to the kitchen to make a coffee thinking the vehicle possessed Autopilot, with easily imagined consequences.

Now that story may or may not be an urban myth, but the simple fact is that we are moving toward vehicles which could render the driver more or less redundant with several well funded schemes for a series of driverless vehicles . These include the Google driverless car, examples of which have now recorded around 150,000 miles and carried such notable passengers as the senior National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator and the Chairwoman of the US National Transportation Safety Board, a lady who was moved to intimate that many drivers who texted, ate or adjusted their make up might be safer with a computer controlling their vehicle when she stepped from the converted Toyota Prius obviously suitably impressed.

Most of the projects currently underway, and these include research programs by Volkswagen, Audi, Volvo, BMW and General Motors, are into ‘driver assisted’ vehicles which require varying degrees of human intervention, even if only to park and set the route. Semi autonomous systems would need an immense investment in infrastructure to enable the vehicles on board computers to ‘read’ the road whilst fully autonomous vehicles are the ultimate aim, vehicles which could control every system involved in reaching any intended destination safely.

Between July last year and October two electrically powered freight carrying vehicles made the 13,000+ kilometre trip between Parma, Italy and Shanghai, China with only a tiny amount of human interference. The scheme was called the VisLab Intercontinental Autonomous Challenge (details here) and was devised with help from the European Union EUREKA Prometheus Project, by VisLab, a brainchild of the University of Parma, which has been pushing the boundaries of automatic vehicle control for over two decades.

This feat is just the latest in a series of research projects by various universities such as the AutoNOMOS by the Freie Universität Berlin artificial intelligence department and the Carnegie Mellon University which, in conjunction with General Motors, won the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge prize (funded by the US Department of Defense) in the third such event held in November 2007.

Should we be afraid of this technology? Most people recoil in horror at the thought of a machine controlling their immediate destiny in such a fashion. The truth however is that computers already assist in some of the trickiest situations we face – and are considerably more successful at things like landing aircraft in fog, flying the latest helicopters etc. One of the problems of course is that the intelligent machines vulnerability to hacking makes the complete disappearance of a driver from the cab unlikely.

On many types of train these days operators accept that drivers are simply expendable, it is only the inherent mistrust of the technology which makes passengers feel safer when there is a human presence in the cab. So what of long distance freight delivery trucks or express couriers? Can we expect to see silent electric vehicles, perhaps without cabs, let alone steering wheels, making their silent way around our towns and cities and along our motorways?

The answer is probably not for some very considerable time, the situations faced by any logistics operator are simply too changeable to make the sort of investment involved worthwhile for the foreseeable future. What we can expect however is a series of ever more useful driver aids, anti collision sensors, intelligent speed controls etc. which will not only a drivers life easier but prove safer for all concerned.

Photo:- One of the VisLab Parma to Shanghai vehicles courtesy of VisLab.