Self-driving Vehicles

As technology advances, we face a changing world.

One of the aspects that we will face is the advent of vehicles that will operate autonomously.  Road transport is one place that we will see the biggest impact.  Drivers are expensive.  Drivers cost the company between 25 and 30 percent of the gross revenue when wages, benefits and payroll taxes are taken into account.  What better incentive for an employer in the transport industry to embrace this technology?

During the past few years, there has been a lot of study of the practicality of autonomous transport vehicles.  Much of the technology has been available for the past 25 years!  Collision avoidance through the use of forward facing radar, lane departure alerts and GPS all play into the equation.  Even personal auto manufacturers have taken this technology to heart and include it in the higher end autos offered to the public.

The next step is inter-vehicle communication.  That is one vehicle communicating with other vehicles in the vicinity. In the transportation industry, this can lead to better fuel economy through the use of “platooning”.

Another benefit of this type of trucking is the increase of “available road space” by moving the platooning trucks closer together.  The lead truck is “in control” of the rest.  Whether the lead truck is “driven” by a person or a computer system utilizing the onboard sensor systems, this is coming.  Most likely, this will be done on the main goods transport routes (QE2 and Hwy 16 East in Alberta) where there are multiple lanes and a clear division between traffic travelling in different directions.

Inter-vehicle communication will work not only for transport traffic, but with passenger vehicles also connected, the roadways should become a safer place to be. A vehicle encountering an emergency will automatically alert other vehicles that “pre-action” is required.  Speeds will be adjusted automatically, lanes changed and any avoidance actions will be done BEFORE encountering the emergency.

Autonomous trucks will be on our highways soon.  They will be used primarily for terminal to terminal travel.  A truck can be connected to a trailer or trailers, driven to the terminal gate by a yard person and sent on its way.  When it reaches the receiving terminal, the truck will come to a stop at the terminal gate where it will be met by yard personnel who will disconnect the trailer and prepare the truck for the return journey.  If this is an electric powered truck, it will be placed in the queue for a rapid charge and inspection.  If diesel or hybrid powered, fuel will be added and the vehicle inspected before returning to the road.

Local deliveries will then be carried out by a local driver who will also pick up freight to be forwarded.

In talking with people in this industry (I drive transport for a living as well), there have been a number of concerns raised.  These include, but are not limited to:

Weather related concerns; what happens when the weather turns bad and the roads are becoming unsafe?  The sensors on the power unit will detect the changing road conditions, digital weather reports will be monitored (Environment Canada has many weather broadcast stations), and speed will be adjusted appropriately.  Remember that vehicles will be in communication.  A slowdown by one will be reported to others in the area so that all may be adjusted as needed.  A personal auto being driven manually will be notified, and the vehicle will indicate the potential situation by the driver.  Onboard sensors may become more sensitive and over ride the controls should this be required.

Mechanical concerns (flat tires, engine malfunction, etc.); again, with the communication abilities of the autonomous vehicle, these concerns can be sent to a central location, where a person will diagnose and determine appropriate actions.  In the event of a massive failure, the vehicle will move to a safe location and come to a stop (just as a driver would), then send out a distress signal.  Other autonomous vehicles would be aware of the location and status of the disabled vehicle.  A rescue vehicle would know of the precise location of the disable vehicle so unwarranted delays can be reduced.

As time passes, we will see a change in the style of public transportation available.  Buses and light rail transit will change in their scope.  No longer will we be sitting at the bus stop in foul weather.  We will simply send out a call for a ride.  We may be greeted by a “Johnny Cab” that will take us to the local public transportation terminal or take us to our final destination.  Current projections indicate that it will cost people significantly less money to use autonomous public vehicles than is does to actually own a personal auto.  As this technology is adopted, we will see a significant increase in the number of these cars roaming our streets.  Many are even now using the early form of the technology through apps such as Lyft and Uber.  Simply grab your phone, and call a car.  Closest car will be dispatched to you, and you can be on your way.

The future is coming, whether we want it or not.

Pat Cuthbert – Infrastructure and Transit

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