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Fully autonomous vehicles still years away: panel

Posted: May 1, 2017 by John G. Smith

Panelists agreed that fully autonomous trucks are at least a decade away.

BANFF, AB – Announcements about various advances in autonomous vehicles are coming fast and furious. Demonstrations have been held on tracks and highways alike. In its latest budget, Ontario even committed $80 million over five years to create an Autonomous Vehicle Innovation Network.

Just don’t expect driverless trucks to be a reality anytime soon.

Speakers at the Alberta Motor Transport Association’s annual convention stressed that drivers will be behind the wheel for years to come, despite the technical advances being realized.

Rather than truly driverless trucks, representing the highest level of autonomous vehicles, capabilities like tightly packed platoons are the most likely to be seen in the near term, they agreed. Subsystems such as Lane Departure Systems and Collision Avoidance Systems can help to prevent collisions even sooner than that.

Fully autonomous vehicles? Those are more likely a decade or more away, destined for specific activities.

“Maybe up in the oilfield. Maybe in a yard. That’s it. Nobody in the public – or a politician – is going to let [a driverless] 80,000-pound vehicle on that road,” said Stephen Laskowski, president of the Canadian Trucking Alliance. He went further, adding the trucking industry has to fight misconceptions that driving jobs are going to be replaced by machines, and offer a clear message to future drivers: “We are here. Our industry is here to stay. And if you’re a truck driver, you’re going to have a job for 30 years.”

Instead, he is focused on the underlying systems that make autonomous trucks possible. “What technologies can we put in the truck that makes drivers better?”

That will become a key question in the near future as the industry, facing an aging workforce, needs to recruit a new generation of drivers with less experience behind the wheel, he says.

There are plenty of technologies that could be applied. Dan Duckering, president and Chief Operating Officer of Duckering’s Transport, quoted a recent speaker he heard, suggesting it’s time to stop thinking about computers in trucks, and instead think of trucks as computers on wheels.

“We’re around the corner, like tomorrow, from Level 2 and 3 [autonomous] trucks being on the road,” he said. Level 2 features systems that perform things like centering in a lane, allowing drivers to take hands off the wheel. Level 3 will shift “safety-critical functions” to the truck in certain conditions.

Technical challenges are just the beginning in the move to bring fully autonomous trucks to market. “It’s going to be a factor not as much of technology, but social conscience and what people are prepared for,” says Laury Schmidt, district sales manager – Volvo Trucks Canada. How many people, he asked the crowd, would be willing to get on an airplane with no pilot? “Is society prepared to have 80,000 pounds rolling down the road with nobody?”

Futuristic or not, manufacturers are scrambling to be the first to unveil related technology. “Right now there’s a big push to see who’s first,” said Cindy Clark, dealer principal with Western Star Trucks. Then there’s the matter of what the market will buy. “How much do you guys really want to spend, and what’s the return going to be?” She expects underlying technologies like automated transmissions to be embraced more widely first.

Platooning technology is already available, but there are questions about the specific models that will be embraced. Trailers in a platoon, for example, might not even require a traditional tractor. Then there is the question of government policies to allow such configurations.

Governments are facing challenges of their own, as they try to decide exactly how to prepare. “It is disruptive. We don’t know what to prepare for,” said Wendy Doyle, Alberta Transportation’s executive director – office of traffic safety. “It impacts a lot of policies we have in government.” What kind of training will the driver in an autonomous vehicle require? Will the vehicles require designated lanes? For that matter, can someone be charged with impaired driving if the vehicle itself is doing the driving?

Manufacturers are not waiting for the government to build any related infrastructure, she added. Executives with Volkswagen, Audi and Google – all looking at autonomous cars – have told her that, if they had to wait for governments to establish special road networks, the technology would never come to market. Their focus instead has been to develop the computer models that work on roads that exist today.

Expect plenty of permits, exceptions and pilot projects in the meantime, she says. “People have to trust the technology first, so it’s going to have to be baby steps.”

The Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators, which represents every jurisdiction in Canada, now has an autonomous vehicle working group asking if provinces have legislation that allows for platooning in the first place. So far, Ontario is the only province that has legislation to allow testing of autonomous vehicles.

Some unanswered questions involve preparing for the worst. “When something goes wrong, who’s liable then?” Duckering asks. Even today, some suppliers begin pointing fingers when components fail. “Insurance is a big concern in all of this – even the advanced safety systems.” Insurers themselves may play a role in advancing the underlying technologies, offering better rates to those who leave some of the driving to a computer. Look no further than rear-end collisions that quickly become multi-vehicle pileups because a driver was looking down or spilled a coffee, he said.

Cars being developed with Level 3 automation will warn when drivers are expected to re-take a wheel in about 30 seconds, Laskowski added. Trusting the system is one thing, but can we expect drivers will be ready to take the wheel at that time?

“Once these technologies are more proven in the marketplace, I’m going to make the assumption the insurance industry is going to start discounting,” he suggested.

There are operational issues to consider, too. Schmidt, for example, refers to the way platoons of trucks are assembled. “How does that work when I can’t put a complete platoon together?” he asks. “Does that eliminate me because I’m a smaller carrier?”

Some options may not even be a choice. Instead of offering grants to early adopters, a government finance minister could find it cheaper to mandate different aspects of the technology, Laskowski said. “Create the framework to allow the OEMs to thrive and the carriers to be creative on their own accord.” 

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