The holy grail for most car manufacturers at the moment is autonomous, or self-driving, technology. Many of the major car brands have shown examples of their technology at shows such as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), or on test tracks and public highways in recent years.
And the truth is, they’re not that far off becoming a reality, with companies such as Volvo predicting they’ll be ready to build production cars with autonomous features by the end of the decade.
But with 73.5% of all freight in the UK being transported by road in 2015 (the latest year for which figures are available), attention is gradually turning to the possibility of introducing autonomous technology to vans and trucks – especially as the latest UK emissions data – from the National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory (NAEI) – estimates that HGVs emitted 18.7m tonnes of CO2 equivalent between 2013 and 2014 (which is the latest data available).
And when you also factor in that in 2015, there were 6,037 collisions involving at least one HGV, resulting in 8,344 casualties (284 of which were fatalities), it’s easy to see that anything that can improve efficiency and increase safety – as autonomous technology aims to do – will be a welcome addition to the nation’s vans and lorries.
Although the technology isn’t as well developed, there are examples of truck manufacturers already testing self-driving capabilities.
Daimler, which owns the Mercedes-Benz brands, unveiled its Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025 three years ago, a concept that highlighted how the truck of tomorrow will drive itself.
Bringing together assistance and telematics systems that are already in use, Mercedes has developed a smart driving system called Highway Pilot which, the company claims, increases safety, lowers fuel consumption and creates better working conditions for truck drivers.
Highway Pilot uses cameras and radar sensors to detect traffic surrounding the vehicle and relay the information to the vehicle systems that control the speed and steering of the vehicle. An integrated three-dimensional map also ensures that the vehicle knows its exact position at all times.
Mercedes-Benz has had Highway Pilot approved for use on public roads in Germany and is also developing Highway Pilot Connect, which adds a number of vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications features to enable platooning.
Volvo, which is one of the leading innovators in autonomous driving in its cars, is also developing a self-driving features in its trucks – and already has working examples of what the technology can do.
As John Comer, head of product management at Volvo Trucks told us: “We have some running at the moment, in a mine in Sweden and on a sugar cane plantation in Brazil, plus we’re testing an autonomous refuse vehicle where, during its loading cycle on an estate is driving autonomously, albeit with a driver at the back of the vehicle, so there’s still a human interface.”
“But I think autonomous trucks will be a little bit behind autonomous cars: the idea of a truck with no driver might be a bit frightening to many people.
“And one of the other questions about autonomous trucks is about when it gets from A to B, what happens then? When it arrives in the yard, who’s going to unload it? Who’s going to hand over the delivery note? Who’s going to sign for the delivery? How do you ensure that a vehicle isn’t left to one side and that there’s a process to get that vehicle unloaded and back on the road again?
“We already have driver support systems, adaptive cruise control, dynamic steering – all making life easier for the driver. These things are all leading to the road to autonomy, but there’s still a lot of work to do to perfect the technology.”
Platooning is one potential stepping stone to fully autonomous trucks, which we could see on British roads in the not-too-distant future, if the government’s plans – contained originally in the 2016 Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill, and now in the Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill – come to fruition.
But the foundations of autonomous technology are firmly in place and while we’ll be seeing autonomous cars before self-driving trucks, driverless HGVs are no longer simply a movie storyline.