Every time there is mention of a self-driving truck, or even a truck with too many driver aids, the sentiment that drivers are being replaced is reintroduced.
The media frenzy around autonomous vehicles really kicked off last year when Tesla claimed their cars will have fully autonomous capability by 2018, Obama planned to invest almost $4 billion in autonomy research, and Uber acquired autonomous truck manufacturer Otto.
Rest assured, in Australia at least, truck drivers won’t be out a job for many years to come – here’s why.
Firstly, the laws lag behind, and we don’t appear to have the infrastructure either.
Our state-based road laws don’t allow for quick changes, and currently don’t allow anything past a Level 2 or 3 in autonomous vehicle terms.
Now, before you go Googling what a Level 2 or 3 autonomous vehicle is…let me explain.
In January 2014 the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) introduced the now widely adopted autonomous vehicle standard ‘J3016’, to provide real-world criteria of automated driving systems to allow vehicles to be rated across six levels of autonomy.
The levels, as seen below, run from zero to five, with zero involving no automation and five offering full automation.
As the table shows, the major shift really occurs between Level 2 and 3, when the dynamic driving task goes from being controlled by the driver, to being controlled by the automated driving system.
In Australia, there is some grey area around what level of autonomy is legally allowed, whether it’s a Level 2 or 3.
Technically, Level 3 is permitted, because there is a human ‘Fallback Performance of Dynamic Driving Task’ which essentially means a driver has to be able to intervene if the system requires it to do so.
However, this means the person needs to be in control, with their hands on the wheel and in a fit condition.
The laws permitting the use of a Level 3 autonomous vehicle weren’t really developed to be inclusive of self-driving cars, but as it stands, they’re driveable down under.
Currently there are a number of Level 2 autonomous vehicles operating around the country, but there aren’t any Level 3 vehicles outside of authorised trials.
Truck manufacturers are readily chasing Level 3 automation, but we’re yet to see them seriously pushing for Level 4 and 5.
Rejoice, this means you’ll still be able to drive…but don’t worry; even Level 3 trucks aren’t likely to be introduced as quickly as cars.
Where this becomes trickier for trucks is that unlike light vehicles which are regulated on a state-by-state basis, heavy vehicles are regulated under the Heavy Vehicle National Law (HVNL) – although this excludes Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The National Transport Commission (NTC) is going to great lengths to ensure that the state-based road laws and HVNL are in-line with the many complex requirements of autonomous vehicles.
A recently released NTC discussion paper, the ‘National guidelines for automated vehicle trials’, has sought feedback from manufacturers, industry groups and road users on the development of national guidelines for autonomous vehicle trials.
Some of the questions posed are not so black and white, with issues like who is actually in control of a vehicle (driver or system) and who is responsible in the case of an accident,
Currently, the Australian Road Rules and other transport laws automatically assume a driver is a human, preventing it from being a ‘system’.
The NTC discussion paper outlines that, “Due to their size and mass, the trialling of automated heavy vehicles presents different safety risks than those for automated light vehicles,” which again suggests trucks may be slower to adopt autonomous technology.
Despite the technical and legal hurdles faced in Australia manufacturers are pushing forward with autonomous trucks, to about Level 3 at this stage.
In October of 2016 Daimler Trucks successfully tested a Mercedes-Benz Actros with Highway Pilot, the first series-production truck to drive on a partially automated basis on the motorway.
This Highway Pilot system is classified by Daimler as Level 2 enabled, while their Future Truck 2025 achieved Level 3 on a test track two years earlier.
To take things up a notch, Uber’s purchase of autonomous truck manufacturer Otto, who appears to be using Volvo trucks to develop their technology, meant the company was able to put a truck on the road capable of Level 4.
The truck successfully transported 50,000 cans of Budweiser beer 120 miles from the brewery in Fort Collins to Colorado Springs, USA.
While this truck achieved full Level 4 autonomy, with the driver out of the front seat altogether, it only did it on the motorway.
Regardless, it’s still proof that as high as Level 4 automation can be achieved for the highway, which is where a lot of interstate drivers down under spend most of their time.
Other manufactures are also pushing forward in the autonomous truck space, with Scania and Volvo both using driverless trucks in mines using both remote-control functionality and autonomous technology.
Scania is also set to design a full-scale four-truck autonomous platooning operation using public roads in Singapore.
We’re likely to see a host of Level 2 trucks enter the national fleet over the coming years, but how long Level 3 is going to take is unknown.
For now you can keep on truckin’, with the knowledge that fully autonomous trucks are quite a while off!