Australia a possible test bed for driverless trucks

By: Steve Brooks

Autonomous trucks are on the way, and Australia has been earmarked as a possible testing ground.

Australia a possible test bed for driverless trucks
Volvo was one of six leading truck makers to highlight the merits of autonomous driving technology in a comprehensive platooning exercise across Europe.


If recent developments in Europe and the US are anything to go by, the driverless truck may become a reality sooner rather than later, with Australia likely to play a significant role in reliability testing according to a Volvo senior scientist.  

Visiting Australia during the recent Brisbane Truck Show, Hayder Wokil is a Master of Science and Volvo’s Director of Mobility and Automation, placing him at the forefront of the autonomous truck technology which has the ultimate potential to dramatically change truck driving as we know it today.

Simply explained, autonomous truck technology uses a vehicle’s highly advanced electronics, wi-fi and radar technology to take over the functions of actually driving and steering a truck, particularly over long highway stretches.

As for the closely associated function of platooning, European sources describe it as the use of autonomous driving technologies for two or more trucks to communicate wirelessly and follow in close succession, effectively drafting behind each other to enhance aerodynamics and fuel efficiency.

At its simplest, the autonomous truck leaves the driver to just sit back and take it easy but always able to assume physical control when required.

At its most complex, it has the potential to make the driver fully redundant on specially configured routes where the truck is virtually ‘connected’ to the road.

While some may view the autonomous truck, either singly or in platoon form, as little more than futuristic pie-in-the-sky technology, there’s no doubt that within the development programs of some of the world’s leading commercial vehicle producers, vast resources are being thrown at furthering the technology that will bring the autonomous – driverless – truck ever closer to commercial and social reality.

Likewise, the assumption that Australia’s relative isolation and unique operating conditions will keep the technology away from our highways is nowadays naive and unrealistic.

Volvo’s Hayder Wokil at the recent Brisbane Truck Show. He says Australia will be a significant contributor in development of the autonomous truck due to its value as a vital test bed for all Volvo Group products

In fact, Volvo’s Hayder Wokil was quick to cite Australia as a significant contributor in development of the autonomous truck due to its value as a vital test bed for all Volvo Group products.

That’s not to suggest we’ll be seeing autonomous trucks in single or platoon form being trialled anytime soon across the Nullarbor or up and down the Hume. What Hayder Wokil did forecast, however, was that the systems, sensors and plethora of pieces critical to the safe, efficient and reliable operation of autonomous trucks will need to be tested to extraordinary extremes and for Volvo, Australia is the ideal place for operational extremes.

"Australia is at the top of Volvo’s list for testing but it’s not just about testing powertrains or chassis," he commented. "It’s just as important for component testing and that will certainly be the case for autonomous trucks."

However, when asked if Australia had the potential to be a test bed for a complete autonomous truck on, say, the Adelaide to Perth route, a thoughtful Hayder answered, "I wouldn’t dismiss the idea. It’s not out of the question but it won’t happen soon. So much still needs to be done in Europe."

Europe and the US, he emphasised, will continue to be the heart of autonomous development for the obvious reasons that the world’s major truck producers are based on either side of the Atlantic and importantly, can quickly acquire first-hand feedback from operators involved in field tests.

On the surface, autonomous trucks are touted by proponents as a significant advance in safety and efficiency. It is, however, technology which also has the keen attention of scores of major freight companies and their legions of blue-chip customers, all excited by the possibility of cheaper transport costs. After all, take the driver – or at least some of the drivers – out of the picture and gone also is a major cost in freight movements.

This aspect of driverless truck technology and the rapid increase in interest by major road freight groups are now causing considerable concern as the future livelihoods of truck drivers come into question, particularly following the success of an extensive platooning exercise across Europe by six of the continent’s leading truck makers – DAF, Iveco, MAN, Mercedes-Benz, Scania and Volvo.

Autonomous driving technology is finding increasing acceptance in mining operations around the world

Concern for the future livelihoods of drivers has been highlighted by a comprehensive study titled Managing the Transition to Driverless Road Freight Transport by four significant transport-related entities – the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, International Transport Workers’ Federation, International Road Transport Union and the International Transport Forum.

In a disturbing conclusion, the report suggests the jobs of between two million and 4.4 million truck drivers in the US and Europe could become redundant by 2030 if efforts to introduce driverless trucks maintain their current momentum.

While the report’s authors acknowledge the prospective benefits in cost savings, reduced emissions, safer roads, and even providing some relief for an emerging shortage of professional drivers, it also emphasises the loss of millions of jobs will have dire economic and social consequences unless provisions are made to counter the impacts of autonomous technology.

Examining numerous scenarios around the implementation of driverless trucks, the joint report signals a massive 50 to 70 percent reduction in truck driving jobs in the US and Europe by 2030.

Right now, the road to widespread autonomous trucking remains long and mired in difficulties of many descriptions, led by massive regulatory hurdles.

However, the journey to driverless trucks has well and truly started and from all appearances there will be no turning back.

See full feature in the August 2017 edition of Owner//Driver, on sale August 7.

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