Driverless vehicles come up regularly as the subject of media hype followed by rafts of tests and feedback, but in recent months manufacturers have taken a more cautious, measured approach.
What are the 6 levels of vehicle autonomy ?
There are a number of different approaches to the concept of autonomous cars and trucks, involving different time scales in terms of deployment.
The progression to driverless cars will crystallise in a strong orientation towards objects, entertainment devices in particular, and ‘mobility-oriented’ logic of the MAAS (mobility as a service) type.
What about driverless trucks ?
A different kind of evolution here, that will gravitate logically towards business-oriented usage.
What will they be used for ?
To become a credible alternative, driverless trucks must ultimately be suitable for three main types of deployment:
Initially, use in closed environments: ports, mines, airports, intra-site transport, etc.
Subsequently, driving on major roads. Vehicles will be driven by ‘human’ drivers until they arrive at a major road or motorway, where autonomous driving will be enabled.
Finally the most complex stage: deliveries in urban environments where vehicles come into close proximity with humans, varying types of infrastructure (street furniture, poor road surfaces, etc.), and deliveries to businesses and individuals of different types, which affects the kind of goods transported and consequently the bodywork of the truck.
Once these types of deployment can all be controlled faultlessly, vehicles may progress to complete autonomy.
What experiments have been carried out recently in Europe ?
The first tests on driverless inter-connected vehicles in convoy, commonly known as platooning, are set to commence in France as soon as legislation is passed to authorise them. This model will ultimately lead to the use of autonomously-driven vehicles in practice, with savings in terms of fuel consumption, safety and distance travelled (the driving time should logically be longer when a vehicle is in autonomous mode).
The Stora Enso group, a world leader in paper manufacturing, is testing a driverless truck for rota transportation of wood chips. The goal is to gauge the environmental, economic and safety benefits.
The Daimler group is testing vehicles for use in snow clearing situations at its test centre. “From a broader perspective, the technology could initially be used at ports, warehouses, and even on farms.”
A new value chain and new services ?
A whole new type of revenue will also emerge with the supply and updating of software, supply of objects and services, and monetisation of the data collected. We already know that decision-makers and users turn to advice and support for financing and operating vehicles, so it’s likely this will be an integral part of the new value chain that will become established. The more complex a vehicle is, the greater the number of associated services required to make full use of it.
What financing solutions will ultimately be available for driverless vehicles ?
The decision whether to buy or lease is something that comes up frequently. Where new technological models are concerned, leasing is a useful option; among other things it allows decision-makers to make the choice safely, by consigning the risk management to external sources while still benefiting from the services the vehicle provides, depending on the contract. It gives a clear idea of the TCO (total cost of ownership) involved with this type of asset. Going further down this line, you could also consider whether pay-per-use will become the norm or if we will stay with the traditional monthly subscription or lease.
What about maintenance for these vehicles ?
A veritable revolution has been going on for years on the factory floor – these vehicles are being modernised all the time. New technologies and energies (gas, electricity, even hydrogen, etc.) mean a diverse range of skills will be needed to maintain a fleet of vehicles. Trucks break down due to electronic problems more often than mechanical problems nowadays; a diagnostic kit is now essential for maintaining a fleet, and preferably a multi-make kit (multi-generation, etc.). The vehicles are multiplexed, interconnected with numerous add-ons as well as the standard equipment. The autonomous vehicles of tomorrow will push the boundaries of maintenance even further. It is imperative to pre-empt these changes when forward-planning the skills requirements to sustain the transition in an occupational area that’s already under strain and struggling to recruit (despite promising prospects).
What obstacles are there to driverless vehicles ?
Social acceptance: in a world that’s becoming increasingly automated it’s not just the technical boundary that needs to be overcome but also the boundary on what society is prepared to accept. Recent fatal accidents show that people are not ready to accept driverless vehicles becoming the norm, and there’s even talk of anxiety.
Human impact: one study has estimated that driverless vehicles would be a direct threat to the jobs of 2 million Americans. Joseph Schumpeter talks about the ‘creative destruction’ that comes with progress, but let’s not forget the people who will be directly impacted. Will our societies cope if they have to provide retraining for all the people affected in this way? Also, humans will always be needed to load and unload vehicles. The business connection created by the driver at the time of delivery is still an important consideration and may ultimately be a sticking point for competitivity.
Reliability: autonomous transport is an extremely advanced technology. It requires the use of sensors (lidars, radars, etc.) able to operate at all times and in all conditions, faultless control of artificial intelligence and an infrastructure sufficiently robust for transferring data (5G will enable advances to be made in this area).
Cybercrime: the IT security around autonomous vehicles will need to be reinforced. Three examples of new inherent risks that demonstrate how critical this is: mouse jacking or mouse theft, modification/jamming/misuse of data, and of course taking remote control of the vehicle.
Responsibility: in terms of regulations and also insurance, our practices and policies are not yet in line with the anticipated changes. There is no consensus at the moment. For example, who will be responsible in the event of an accident – the vehicle manufacturer, the software, the driver?
Financial accessibility: for driverless vehicles to enter into common usage, they must demonstrate economic relevance in the global context. As with any innovation, this remains the key to becoming established as a sustainable solution.
What are the advantages/levers for driverless vehicles ?
Human: there is a shortage of truck drivers these days, the occupation is under much pressure. Although safety concerns and working conditions have been greatly improved, they are still a real issue. In the most dangerous driving environments (mines, etc.) autonomous vehicles will constitute real progress.
Economic: the ‘human’ cost (driver’s salary, training, supervision, etc.) is one of the more significant items in the cost of transportation. It is also estimated that the cost of running a driverless vehicle would be less than that of a human driver over time. There are no restrictions on operating time for machines. Vehicles can be pushed to their maximum potential usage.
A powerful ecosystem with financial means: the financial stakes are enormous and a whole sector has formed around manufacturers and publishers of software, objects, online services, infrastructure, connected objects, etc.
In conclusion, it’s a shrewd person who can predict when driverless vehicles will become part of our daily lives. The market in autonomous vehicles would be a real godsend – worth over 500 billion euros by 2035, but there are still many obstacles to overcome. Economic and social accessibility are still highly complex issues that must be resolved before a model acceptable to all is produced. COVID19 has also shown how vulnerable our organisations are at the moment, and the crucial, even vital, importance of transportation. This will undoubtedly increase awareness of how important the driver’s job is, as is the opportunity to access driverless vehicles in the long term.