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The introduction of driverless vehicles may be nothing more than science fiction to some people, but the fact that technology giants such as Google are investing heavily in development, shows the concept is closer to reality than many think.
Daimler, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of trucks, recently demonstrated a prototype truck which drove autonomously on a German autobahn and successfully navigated a junction in real driving conditions.
This demonstration showed just how real the technology is. Daimler demonstrated the truck as part of their ‘Future Truck 2025’ strategy. Trucks will be equipped with their Highway Pilot assistance system, which allows them to navigate successfully at speedsof up to 85 kph.
The introduction of driverless trucks could be one of the biggest changes the road haulage industry will ever see. But what are the driving forces behind the development?
In Europe it is estimated that around 45% of the cost of road haulage is attributed to the driver. Removing the driver would potentially have a huge impact on road haulage costs, margins and profits. There is no indication that this technology will actually replace drivers, but it will be there as an aid to the driver and help free time for them to work on other duties, especially given driving hours regulations
People seem increasingly unwilling to commit to a career as a HGV driver, for many reasons, including long hours away from home, relatively low pay, the poor image of the industry and the working conditions. This will soon translate in to higher costs for haulage operators and their clients. Removing much of the stress from driving by delegating workload to a computer, the working conditions should become much more attractive. There could also be an opportunity for the driver role to change into a more enhanced position by adding transport management duties that could be completed while the computer is in control.
Public perception will demand absolute reliability in this new technology. It will need to be proven before any driverless vehicle is allowed on motorways. Any operation involving driverless vehicles on public roads will need to be part of a much larger system, one that perhaps is not quite a reality yet.
One of the leading reasons for the heavy investment in this technology is the potential increase in transport efficiency. With road congestion predicted to continue to rise in the near future there is a real need to break the link between economic growth and road transport. German authorities have predicted that truck transport volumes will increase by 39% by 2030 unless something is done to stop it. The construction of new roads is very unpopular with environmental groups, while many countries in Europe just do not have the funds available to pay for that kind of extra road infrastructure anyway. Major road networks in Europe have hardly grown in the last ten years and that’s why it becomes essential to use existing road capacity more efficiently – driverless vehicles can help aid in this goal.
There have been major developments in technology in terms of assisting the driver. Daimler’s ‘Proximity Control Assist’ will adapt the speed of the vehicle depending on the traffic situation through an integral cruise control and braking system. Three-dimensional maps already exist for a ‘Predictive Powertrain Control’ system and telematics products for vehicle and transport management for the driver and operator have already been rolled out.
Vehicle manufacturers believe that the driver will still be essential to the driving process in the next ten years, and claim that the technology will be there to assist drivers rather than take their jobs.
Written by Richard Newbold, founder of Returnloads.net and has spent thirty years in the transport and logistics industry