Attack of the Transformers? No, I’m not talking about that cheesy movie with Shia LaBeouf. The robot trucks I’m talking about are very real, and they are already staging a coup in the Australian mining industry.
Driverless Trucks Downunder
Australia has been leading the way in truck automation since 2009 when mining giant Rio Tinto began their collaboration with Komatsu to automate their haulage operations in the Pilbara.
In 2012 Rio Tinto deployed their first fleet of fully automated haulage vehicles. These “robot trucks” are part of a broader automation regime at Rio Tinto including loaders and driverless freight trains. Rio Tinto’s goals with their automation program are twofold: to increase efficiency and eliminate incidents caused by human error and fatigue.
The new fleet of autonomous trucks is controlled from a centralised operations centre, and relies on a highly sophisticated technology network of GPS satellites and real time monitoring software. The vehicles communicate constantly with their human overseers and each other to get the job done efficiently and safely.
Industry representatives are enthusiastic about the success of Rio Tinto’s automation program. Now the transport industry is looking to apply that success to road freight and get driverless trucks onto Australian highways.
Right now, the Australian transport industry is looking to the US and Europe for inspiration. The Daimler motor company (who own Mercedes) have been developing and testing driverless truck technology since the mid 2000’s.
In 2015 the US State of Nevada gave the green light to the Daimler to commence testing their prototype driverless freight trucks on public highways. Daimler successfully piloted two of their autonomous ‘Freightliner Inspiration’ semi-trailer trucks across Nevada’s desert highways, proving the driverless truck concept in dramatic fashion.
So how do these driverless trucks work?
Autonomous vehicles employ a complex, interactive array of state of the art sensors and navigation technology. Prototype vehicles like Daimler’s ‘Freightliner Inspiration’ are equipped with powerful on board computers that monitor the truck’s surroundings with a thoroughness that is impossible for a human operator to achieve.
An autonomous truck is watching the road ahead with multiple radar units, as well as stereo HD cameras. The vehicle’s computer interprets the data it receives from it’s sensors and is capable of recognising hazards, difficult traffic conditions, bad weather and all the other elements of it’s environment that affect it’s journey.
In addition, these vehicles are simultaneously looking behind them and to both left and right. While it is analysing the road and surroundings, a driverless truck is also tracking it’s position with GPS, downloading real time traffic data, and communicating with the other vehicles in it’s convoy. It never gets tired, never gets hungry and doesn’t lose it’s temper. A robot truck is a relentless, ever patient and courteous driving prodigy.
Industry commentators are enthusiastic about the future of vehicle automation. Transport experts anticipate that as more vehicles on the road are equipped with AI technology the roads will become dramatically safer and traffic more predictable.
The future context for driverless trucks could be one in which the majority of vehicles they share the road with are also automated to varying degrees. The more vehicles on the road are able to talk to each other, experts predict, the safer driving will become.
In the future, even if we humans don’t notice an accident about to happen, our cars and trucks will.
Right now driverless vehicles must rely on their own sensory input to make crucial safety decisions. But when they are surrounded by a network of other AI vehicles, every vehicle in the network will share information about their every move moment to moment. That means that instead of reacting to the actions of the vehicles around them, a driverless truck will talk to the vehicles around it so they can co-ordinate their movements, eliminating the possibility of collisions before they arise.
When will we see driverless trucks on Aussie highways?
While the success of autonomous vehicles in the Australian mining industry in encouraging to experts, industry and legislators are proceeding with caution. The potential success of driverless vehicles on public roads hinges on establishing an immaculate safety record. Industry advocates and legislators are upbeat about the safety of driverless vehicles, but do not want to risk accidents which could tarnish the industry’s reputation and set back progress.
South Australia is stepping forward to lead the nation into the transport automation era. A team of officials from South Australia’s ADVI (Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative) travelled to Europe to take part in the ‘Platooning Challenge’ last year.
Platooning is a system of truck automation which involves a convoy of automated vehicles which operate as a group, following behind a lead vehicle. It’s something like a road train, but with each trailer hitched to an autonomous tractor cab, which communicates wirelessly with the trucks in front and behind of it.
The Platooning Challenge saw a fleet of a dozen driverless trucks successfully navigate their way across Western Europe. The epic journey saw the fleet cross thousands of kilometres and was the first time in history that driverless freight vehicles operated across international borders.
It’s not hard to see why these recent advances in the truck automation sphere grabbed the attention of Australia’s transport industry.
Australia, like the US, is dependant on road freight for transportation of all kinds of goods and commodities. The Federal government projects close to 200% growth in the road transport sector over the next 15 years.
Presently more than 170,000 Australians are employed as truck drivers. Making a dent in those employee numbers could represent massive wage savings for big business. Advocates from ADVI and transport industry groups also emphasise the potential safety benefits of introducing driverless technology in Australia. Industry groups have put forward statistics which suggest truck drivers are 15 times more likely to die in a work related accident than workers in any other industry.
Holden, Toyota and Ford are all engaged in development of driverless technology and have expressed growing interest in the Australian market.
At this point, the main impediment to the vehicle industry introducing self driving cars is not technological, but legal. Driverless tech has been developed to the point where manufacturers are confident of its reliability, but they require broader legal sanctions to be able to test their prototypes in real world traffic conditions.
Australia currently has few legislative provisions for driverless vehicles. South Australia has green-lit trials involving autonomous passenger vehicles and authorities are optimistic about the future of driverless vehicles in that state.
Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide is creating a dedicated driverless vehicle research facility. The facility is a partnership project with General Motors Holden.
Talking about the project, the university’s director Dr Emil Bolongaita said that the aim of the facility is to develop “the systems, the lasers, the sonars, the sensors, and the cameras” for autonomous vehicles.
“It will be the first lab in the Southern Hemisphere that will be manufacturing and developing (driverless vehicle) technology, and the next generation of driverless cars. The Southern Hemisphere has different rules, a different environment, unique challenges. We plan to be doing regular tests here and (Adelaide) would be a test-bed for autonomous vehicles.”
Dr Bolongaita, Carnegie Mellon University
Vehicle manufacturers are vague about timelines for their driverless technology. Estimates vary but with the current rate of development experts suggest that driverless cars and trucks could become ubiquitous within 15 years.
One thing industry commentators all seem to agree on is that driverless commercial vehicles will be commonplace on our roads sooner than most people think and that they will make conventional cars and trucks obsolete in many industries.