Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How Will Autonomous Trucks Affect the Freight and Road Haulage Sectors?

What Are the Rules? What's the Best System? Camera vs Radar? Platoon vs Solo? Drivers' Hours?
Shipping News Feature
WORLDWIDE – To write an authoritative piece on the current stage of development and adoption of autonomous vehicles at this point would require a book rather than an article. Things are moving so swiftly that many cities, car and truck manufacturers and passenger and road haulage service providers are currently designing, buying, testing or trialling the new automotive technology. Although our main sphere of interest will always be freight orientated, in this case the state of the private car and passenger vehicle for hire sectors impinge, in that access to the highways of the world are to be directly, and drastically, affected for both commercial and private drivers (and in this case actually non drivers).

Arguments are produced for and against the different technologies involved and those being evolved, in some ways it’s VHS versus the Betamax all over again (and those old enough, remember what happened there?). Now the technical argument centres on lidar (that’s light, detection and ranging to you and me) versus conventional camera/radar systems, a big fan of which is apparently Tesla boss Elon Musk. The lidar system uses lasers as the radar agent and is currently more expensive than the Tesla favoured technology but now auto manufacturer Ford, and Chinese search engine colossus Baidu, have teamed up to work on improving lidar.

The unlikely bedfellows have thrown $150 million at Velodyne LiDAR, a silicon valley based outfit which is concentrating on shrinking both the size, and the cost, of its 3D surveillance, response and mapping solutions. The company says the injection of cash will enable it to rapidly expand the design and production of high performance, cost effective automotive lidar sensors. The investment prompted David Hall, founder and CEO, Velodyne LiDAR, to comment:

“LiDAR continues to prove itself as the critical sensor for safe autonomous vehicle operation. This investment will accelerate the cost reduction and scaling of Velodyne’s industry-leading LiDAR sensors, making them widely accessible and enabling mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. We are determined to help improve the goal of safety for automotive vehicles as soon as possible, as well as empower the efficiency autonomous systems offer.”

So what about trucks? Well news now that a major player in the passenger transport field is dipping its toe into the commercial vehicle market as taxi giant Uber moves to acquire Otto, a start-up founded by ex-Google engineer Anthony Levandowski and targeted solely at self-driving trucks. A company video (here) is likely to make regular truck drivers a little uncomfortable as an Otto rig trundles down the highway whilst the ‘driver’ takes a break (it’s somehow just not natural). A statement from Otto enthused on the possibilities saying:

”By joining forces with Uber we can fast forward to the future. Together, Otto and Uber can build the backbone of the rapidly-approaching self-driving freight system. We can help make transportation as reliable as running water, everywhere for everyone, whether you're talking people or packages.”

However competition in the road haulage sector is likely to be stiff, we have already seen the highly successful ‘platooning’ system work well for a gaggle of European truck manufacturers, and of course so often we have heard comments about delivery systems from those singularly ill equipped to fully understand what is involved in the supply chain.

Autonomous trucks however are coming and what is really needed now is a common method and purpose, an unlikely possibility given the disparate stakeholding interests in the new systems. Whilst the European efforts centre on platooning, highways across the world have plans to introduce individual schemes. The main Ohio toll road which joins Chicago with the East Coast is scheduled to test automatically controlled vehicles soon and Uber will test up to 100 autonomous cabs on the downtown streets of Pittsburgh using Volvo XC90 models, retrofitted with the requisite technology, before the year end.

The problem with new, specifically designed autonomous vehicles, Ford says it plans to introduce cars with no driver controls including steering wheel and foot pedals within five years, is the seemingly complete lack of regulations governing their operation. When those trucks were tested across Europe firstly local rules covering things such as registration plates had to be changed before the test got underway as the rules on self-drivers varied from country to country. And what the devil will happen with drivers’ hours of work rules and will they be consistent from country to country or state to state?

In the US, where one might aspire to a country wide unity on regulations there are in fact currently no rules whatsoever specifically aimed at autonomous vehicles. After the only known fatality involving a car under automatic control, a Tesla on Florida roads in May in which its driver sadly died , the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is conducting an investigation but last month Administrator Mark Rosekind could only comment that ‘guidance is being reviewed, tweaked and perfected’ as the accident investigation continued.

What this lack of federal control means is a vacuum into which, as so often in the US, state law begins to take effect. As usual California is forming its own set of rules as are several other states, quite how these will mesh with what the federal regulators come up with remains to be seen. Last month a study, of particular interest to road haulage interests, of how every US state is dealing with the subject of vehicle platooning was published and can be read here (if you plan to read it in full ensure you understand the meaning of ‘promulgate’). Whatever the outcome to both the technological and legal races are we are doubtless in for an interesting time in the months ahead.

Photo: A driverless Otto rig in action.