How safe will autonomous trucks be?


Have you noticed how quickly the public has responded to the idea of self-driving vehicles? A few years ago, this would all have been treated as science fiction. Today, many are seduced by the growing mileage racked up by Google. The pictures of these white cars with the gizmo on the roof appears to have won us over — such is the strength of Google as a brand, it automatically convinces the majority it’s going to be safe, user-friendly technology. Perhaps, lurking in the backs of our collective consciousness, we’re also remembering Kitt, the car driver by Knight Rider. That was kind of cool technology. The fact the natural language interface the show highlighted, let alone the AI package to drive the car, are still not realizable, does not slow us down. We’re waiting to be driven by one of these modern marvels.

Yet manufacturers and their technology divisions are not drawing the line with the “car”. Far from it. If you were to go to the heavy equipment manufacturers, you would find them all hard at work developing autonomous systems for all the machines routinely used in mining and construction work, including diggers and dumpsters. And then you come to the heavy truck divisions and you really see the effort being put in. Whereas excavators and backhoes can be made self-operating, the saving in manpower is not necessarily significant. But when you look at the thousands of trucks on the roads. Now the potential saving in drivers is significant. Just imagine: all you need is a team to load the truck. It’s then sent off on its way to the first destination. No more worries about driver tiredness and limits on the number of hours behind the wheel. The only time these trucks stop is to pick up fuel and to drop off their cargoes. Europe even has its own acronym for this technology. It’s Sartre (Safe Road Trains for the Environment), i.e. large numbers of trucks slaved together and driving as a single convoy down designated roads. In the first generation, it would only require one human driver in the first cab. All the other follow along behind as if on rails.

If all the saving in pay was passed on to the end consumers of the goods being delivered, we would all be happy (except for all the drivers no long in work, of course). The manufacturers tell the lawmakers the technology is about ten years away so they had better get the laws ready. So what do we think about multiple trucks, each weighing thousands of pounds, thundering down a highway in unmanned convoys? For the record the first successful tests were held in 2012 so this is not a fanciful question. Well, if you’re in your autonomous car, you have nothing to worry about. You can just join the train.

But if something goes wrong with even a single 20 ton truck, the amount of damage it could cause would be horrendous. It’s something to chew on.

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