Australia has robots that pick fruit, harvest crops and milk cows, but is the nation ready for driverless trucks hauling fresh produce on our major transport routes?
- ADVI says that, due to the state of regional roads, driverless freight is not currently possible
- In the US, truck company TuSimple trialled a driverless delivery truck that travelled more than 1,500 kilometres without human control over the vehicle
- A forensic engineer says autonomous technology will not improve road safety
Recently in the United States, autonomous truck company TuSimple completed the milestone of transporting watermelons more than 1,500 kilometres without any human control over the truck.
Australia New Zealand Driverless Vehicle Initiative is the peak industry advisory body for automated vehicles and its executive director, Rita Excell, said the US trial showed how far vehicle automation had progressed.
“TuSimple were in Australia in 2019 and they came out to meet with a number of our partners to get a better understanding of what the opportunities were in Australia,” she said.
“Australia is a world leader in [remotely controlled] heavy vehicles for commercial applications in mines.
“We’re definitely unprecedented with our experience and the level of autonomy.”
Is it possible Down Under?
However, automated road freight haulage faced challenges in Australia, Ms Excell said, due to infrastructure that was not fit for purpose, except for parts of the eastern states.
“It is a really big barrier,” Ms Excell said.
“We’re really keen to see an agenda to improve the standard of our roads, particularly the National Highway.
“We’re very pleased to see a program to duplicate the Princes Highway and some of the key links to the west of Australia from the east coast.”
In addition to improving the quality of major freight routes, Ms Excell said for vehicle automation to thrive in Australia, line markings and telecommunications also needed improvement, especially in regional and rural areas.
“We need wider lanes, a minimum of 3.5 to 3.8 metre lanes and, in regional areas, we don’t come anywhere near that,” she said.
Good-quality telecommunications are required for safety features such as LiDAR, a digital 3D plot of the road network, in addition to complementary technologies such as cameras, radars, maps and GPS.
“We’re really keen to see greater progress around high-definition mapping of the Australian road network, looking at connectivity and filling some of those technology black spots,” Ms Excell said.
Role for federal government
“There is a role for the federal government. There needs to be consistency and equality of access to [communication] services, particularly around the freight task.
“[When it comes to] improving the safety and efficiency of freight, I think a critical part of that is to make sure we have good infrastructure in place and that includes digital and physical infrastructure.”
Fully automated trucks could drive on some roads on the eastern seaboard as they stand but, Ms Excell said, it would be a while before regional freight routes were up to the task.
“We want to see it on our line and long-haul routes, and we want to see that we can move on what we’ve learned from the big mine sites and operators onto regional roads,” she said.
Is automation safer?
Ms Excell said automation provided significant safety benefits, especially alleviating the dangers of driver fatigue.
But forensic engineer John Lambert — who has studied road safety for more than 50 years — said automated trucks would not fix the risks created by road freight.
In cases where it was a single-vehicle crash, the driver was the only person who could be found to be responsible but other road users also caused accidents, Mr Lambert said.
“In multiple-vehicle truck crashes, which account for 65 per cent of all truck crashes, 80 per cent are the fault of the other road user,” he said.
“Another problem with autonomous vehicles is, I haven’t seen any study to date where there are calculations to work out how often the vehicles systems will fail.”
Mr Lambert said the lack of data indicated that, if a driverless truck had a systems failure, there was no back-up plan.
No back-up plan
“The sort of situation you could have there, for example, could be a mud patch on the road that flicks up over the a number of the forward facing sensors so they no longer work the way they were designed to,” he said.
“What happens then with the autonomous vehicle? Does it decide it’s all too much and comes to a stop, or it [does it need] to get a human driver to take over, and then you have to have a driver anyway.”
Mr Lambert said studies showed it took around nine seconds for a driver to regain control of an autonomous vehicle.
The most beneficial aspect of vehicles with a level of autonomy was the ability to re-focus a driver to the road, Mr Lambert said, such as the vehicle beeping when a driver took their hands off the steering wheel or swayed outside of their lane.