The government has announced plans to let partially self-driving lorries loose on our major roads by the end of 2019. The automated system, which is being created by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), means that the trucks will be able to drive far closer together than is normally possible. This will serve to drive down congestion and fuel consumption because of the reduced air resistance. Fuel economy will be boosted by between 4-10%, which is good news for the environment (and haulage companies’ bottom lines).
The plan involves trials of three lorries driving in convoy, in what is known as a ‘platoon.’ The front lorry dictates the speed and braking of all three. The only human presence will be the driver in the leading lorry. He/she will steer and communicate with the rest of the convoy via wireless tech. Any increase or decrease in speed by the front lorry will be instantly matched by the two travelling behind.
Transport Minister Paul Maynard hopes that any savings will be passed on to consumers, “but first we must make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads, and that’s why we are investing in these trials.”
There are safety concerns though, which focuses on the practicalities of the tech being deployed on some of Europe’s busiest roads. For instance, what if a platoon blocks a motorist trying to either drive on to a motorway or exit it?
According to TRL, the trials will only be conducted on motorways that have been carefully selected based on the number of junctions and the amount of traffic congestion. The organisation points out that the driver of the lead lorry will also be able to break up the convoy as and when required if an obstruction is spotted.
Another issue is what would happen when a car tries to squeeze in between the lorries. TRL again argues that the convoy can be broken up depending on the evolving situation. Despite such assurances, TRL and the government face far bigger questions about the technology and its future deployment on our roads.
Edmund King, president of the AA, states that while we should all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion, “we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it.” He highlights that small convoys will block road signs from view, for instance. “We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries… Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America.”
Issues surrounding liability have also been raised by the legal community. Dr Markus Buriansk, of global law firm White & Case, has questioned who would ultimately be to blame if a crash was caused by an automated convoy – would it be the lead driver’s fault or the vehicle maker’s fault? While such details will need to be hammered out on a country-by-country basis, Buriansk told Information Age that the overall issue of safety remains of paramount importance,
“It must be clear to everyone that even if the new technology is 500 times safer than human driving, accidents will still happen… To ensure that the products put on the market at least several times outperform human driving, the industry and lawmakers will need to implement a robust testing mechanism.”
Handling the hackers
Finally, as we move ever closer towards a world where automation permeates every aspect of our personal and working lives, worrying questions remain about malicious attacks on vehicles by the hacking community. Recent research has already shown that simple stickers can be used to confuse automated cars that ‘read’ road signs on the fly to drive safely and consistently.
While this particular issue shouldn’t represent a problem with platooning, as the front lorry is being driven by a human, the idea of hacking the software controlling such vehicles represents a potentially enticing proposition for hackers. According to David Barzilai, founder of Karamba Security, high end cars such as BMW’s 7 Series already feature one hundred million lines of code, and this huge number will only increase in the future. This offers hackers more and more opportunities to exploit any potential system weaknesses.
He told Autocar magazine, “the automotive market is a big risk because of its sheer scale. Recently Chrysler had to recall 1.4 million cars because of a security risk, showing that just one hack can affect more than one million cars. That’s quite astonishing.”
While anything that can make our roads safer and less congested is a positive move – the horrific accident on the M1 last weekend underlines just how devastating the human factor can be on our roads – a slow and steady approach is essential to ensure that the technology is carefully considered before any meaningful rollout of the tech commences.
To rush the process could see the image of autonomous vehicles damaged in the eyes of the public – and what could be a life- and planet-saving technology could risk being rejected for years to come by the very people it’s supposed to help.
Are autonomous vehicles a technology that must be embraced wholeheartedly? Or do you feel that humans must remain in control of vehicles at all times? Let us know your opinions below.