Autonomous trucks are a hot topic and, thanks to enthusiastic sharing of concept videos on social media, the casual observer may think that the world of logistics is about to be revolutionised by autonomous vehicle fleets. The reality is that the technology and the commercial viability are far from synchronised, and we’re looking at an evolutionary timespan of decades. In this article, we discuss the timescales and levels of autonomy being considered for UK fleets and the constraining issues for implementation.
Reality check – driverless trucks in the UK are decades away
Firstly, the deployment of fully autonomous trucks, when it does come, will not be a big bang revolution. It will be the result of evolutionary steps, with each step being measured in years. In the excitement over the concept of driverless technology, it is often overlooked that there are a series of levels in vehicle autonomy that need to be tested first before we get to the ‘nirvana’ of fully automated and driverless vehicles. The Society of Automotive Engineers has defined six levels of automation, starting with driver assistance at level 1 (which is effectively the current situation with technology such as cruise control), to partial automation at level 2 and finally full, driverless automation at level 6. In the UK, level 6 isn’t even on the agenda – it’s decades away. In fact, we’re only just starting to toy with the idea of testing partial automation at level 2 and possibly conditional automation at level 3. Sorry if that sounds boring, but it’s true.
The plans for the UK
What the UK is considering is using partial and conditional levels of autonomy to create vehicle convoys and platoons, primarily to improve fuel efficiency. The basic concept being to utilise autonomous technology to allow trucks (with their drivers) to synchronise steering, braking and acceleration and drive as closely together as possible to reduce drag and consequently fuel consumption. However, even the testing of this is going at a snail’s pace.
In 2014, the Department for Transport (DfT) published a feasibility study for ‘Heavy Vehicle Platoons on UK Roads’. In the document, they proposed that convoying, where drivers remain in control of the trucks and the autonomy facilitates grouping together with 12-metre gaps, could be implemented in 1-2 years. Platooning, where drivers could disengage from the immediate driving task and trucks can group together with 6-metre gaps, could be implemented in 3-5 years. We’re now in 2018, it’s 4 years later and not only has there been no implementation, but first trials are only just being scheduled for this year – at some point, possibly.
Is the UK transport logistics industry bothered?
The lack of pace in testing and deploying convoying and platooning in the UK may have something to do with the lukewarm reception of the UK transport logistics industry. The way the concept of vehicle autonomy is discussed on social media and news channels you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was a revolution in the efficiency and safety of transport logistics. However, pop over to the Road Haulage Association website and you’ll find that they’ve only published two, very brief, articles on the topic in the last few years. Both of which effectively say ‘meh’…
This isn’t because the industry is reactionary or slow to adopt change. The issue for transport operators is that platoons can only really operate under low volume traffic conditions and, due to the complexity of the UK road network, they will probably need to be restricted to 3 or 4 trucks to prevent blocking of access and exit junctions on motorways. In addition to this, the potential efficiency gains will struggle to justify investment and the safety aspects have yet to be proven.
Potential fuel efficiency gains
One of the primary drivers behind both convoying and platooning is fuel efficiency. The closer one truck is behind another the more it benefits from the lead trucks slipstream and the less fuel it uses. Research from SARTRE demonstrated that, with a 6-metre gap between vehicles, which would be the target for platoons, fuel consumption could be reduced by 12%. Of course, a 12% fuel efficiency gain could be very interesting for haulage companies, but there’s something else to consider. Trucks already form informal convoys on our roads. This is not typically an organised affair, but rather due to speed limiters and the difficulty of overtaking that means trucks tend to sit in behind each other. These informal convoys can, in fact, also benefit from the slipstream effect. With 12 metres gaps between vehicles the fuel efficiency gain is around 8%. This means that the deployment of platoons will, potentially, only leverage a further 4% fuel efficiency saving.
Safety tests will still need to consider drivers
Safety is another leading initiative behind platoons. 90% of road accidents are caused by driver error. This statistic alone should be enough to push to deployment of platoons on our roads. However, so far, the digital communication between vehicles in platoons is untested on real roads and this is where the planned platoon trials in the UK will need to focus. It’s not just a case of whether the technology can work, but how drivers react to any potential glitches in the technology. The trials will need to consider something referred to as driver ‘cognitive underload’.
Automation of the driving task in a platoon situation can relieve drivers’ workload to such an extent that drivers experience cognitive underload. They get bored and start daydreaming. This means that the driver has a deteriorated attention capacity, resulting in less vigilance and situation awareness. Consequently, their reaction to any system glitch may be poor. It is issues such as this that lead transport operators to be concerned that platooning may introduce new risk in exchange for mitigating existing risk.
Doesn’t convoying technology already exist?
It could be argued that convoying, if not platooning, is already being practiced on UK roads through Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) technology. ACC, which is now an option on most new commercial vehicles (as well as cars), allows vehicles to ‘lock-on’ to the vehicle in front and use semi-autonomous technology to keep pace with the leading vehicle. However, what the DfT are looking to trial is one step beyond that. They’re looking to trial what is being called Cooperative ACC (CACC), where several vehicles are travelling together and are in constant communication to coordinate acceleration, braking and cruising. This allows them to travel at closer distances than if they only had standard ACC, increasing the potential fuel economy gains. However, the driver will still be in control of the vehicle.
Platooning then goes one step further. With platooning, the lead vehicle in the group is driven normally by the driver and any following vehicles within the group control themselves, with the drivers not required to actively control their vehicles. Platooning is envisaged to allow the vehicles to travel closer together than when convoying, and therefore enables the maximum fuel economy advantage to be obtained.
Platooning is not a new concept, it pre-dates the combustion engine
Platoons may be an important evolutionary step towards full vehicle autonomy, but as a logistics concept, it is far from revolutionary. In fact, the platoon concept is 150 years old – trains. It’s hard to understand the logistical benefits of platoons versus the rail network. You see, the next step beyond platoons is the truck being fully autonomous on motorways with no driver. In the USA they’re already trialling this next step and, in practice, it is logistically very similar to using the rail network.
Since October 2017, autonomous trucks built and operated by a tech start-up called Embark, working in collaboration with Ryder, have been moving white goods on behalf of Frigidaire, who manufacture and distribute refrigerators. The autonomous trucks haul the refrigerators 650 miles along the Interstate 10 freeway, from a warehouse in El Paso, Texas, to a distribution centre in Palm Springs, California. As this is a trial, there is still a driver in case of issues, but the aim is to make this movement fully autonomous.
The issue, and why this starts to look like a rail network, is that, even if the trial is successful and the driver is removed from the equation, the autonomous vehicle will only operate on the freeway. The load must be moved to the freeway by a traditional vehicle, complete with driver, where the trailer is then transferred onto the autonomous vehicle. The same thing happens at the end of the freeway, where a truck and driver must collect the trailer and make the final delivery in the traditional method. On the face of it, logistically speaking, this seems little different from moving by rail.
It may work for the USA, but possibly not for the UK
The concept works in the US market because of the number of straight, relatively uncongested highways connecting major cities that are more prevalent than rail connections. The 650-mile route on Interstate 10 has no junctions that the truck needs to negotiate and these kinds of straight line distances between major cities are much more common in the USA. However, the UK has a highly complex and congested road network – we haven’t had a straight road since the Romans. An equivalent route in the UK, let’s say from London to Inverness, would need to negotiate junctions between the M25, M40, M42, M6, M74, M73, M80 and the M9! Furthermore, it would have to stop at Perth where the M9 turns into an A road all the way to Inverness.
This is probably why the UK industry is so lukewarm. Platoons don’t seem to deliver significant benefits in terms of efficiency and the next evolutionary step of full autonomy on motorways would not be suitable for the UK road network. In fact, it broadly replicates what can already be achieved with the rail network.
The UK is behind the curve and likely to remain there
It seems a shame that the UK is behind the USA, and indeed some mainland European countries, in the testing of vehicle autonomy in logistics. This isn’t because we’re not innovators, but rather that the business case on UK roads is less clear-cut. Just because the technology exists, doesn’t mean a sensible logistics operator is going to invest and deploy without a commercially orientated justification. Technological innovation in the sector needs to be led by commercial viability, not vice-versa.
Full truck autonomy will come, but it won’t be a revolution and it is likely that it will be driven through a long-winded evolution of autonomous technology in other countries first.
The team of consultants at Paul Trudgian are experts in all aspects of supply chain, including transport logistics. If you would like advice or support in any aspect of logistics transportation, contact us today on 0121 517 0008 or email [email protected]