Hands-free driving is necessitating a raft of new legislation ©Shutterstock
Hands-free driving is necessitating a raft of new legislation ©Shutterstock

Tech briefing: autonomous vehicles

23 February 2018

In the space of a few years, self-driving cars have made the leap from science fiction to science fact. What happens next will be crucial for supply chains.

Autonomous vehicles are here. And one thing is clear: they will be mainstream within years, not decades. Every industry will have to evolve with them or go the way of Blockbuster and Kodak. With the world’s biggest players from Amazon to Tesla to Google to Mercedes-Benz committing serious resources to developing sophisticated self-driving technology, one of them will soon win the race to deploy the world’s first fully driverless vehicle.

Recent demonstrations have shown that fully automated vehicles are not only technically feasible, but also close to being able to operate successfully on ‘live’ roads.

The driverless technology industry is expected to be worth £900bn globally by 2025 and is growing by 16% a year. Although self-driving cars are getting the lion’s share of the attention, this technology is also set to disrupt global logistics. Research into self-driving machines of all types for use in the supply chain is exploding, with firms pushing to not only develop fully automated trucks and trains but also ocean cargo vessels.

How it works

There are several systems that work in conjunction with each other to control a driverless vehicle. Radar sensors monitor the position of other vehicles nearby. Video cameras detect traffic lights, read road signs and keep track of other vehicles, while also looking out for pedestrians and other obstacles. A rotating rooftop LiDAR – a camera that uses 32 or 64 lasers to measure the distance to objects – detects the edges of roads and identifies lane markings. Ultrasonic sensors in the wheels can tell the position of curbs and other vehicles when parking. Finally, a central computer analyses all of the data from the various sensors to manipulate the steering, acceleration and braking.

While the technology is currently being refined and tested, the benefit of moving to autonomous technology is difficult to ignore for logistics companies operating on tight margins. Labour-saving vehicles are likely to be adapted faster than self-driving cars, as companies look to cut costs.

Teething problems

Fully autonomous vehicles without even a steering wheel are some way off, many say. As yet, the technology available is not capable of overriding software issues such as freezing or dropping off a network – or even being hacked – and so self-driving cars still have a back-up driver.

And legislation has still to be approved to allow these vehicles freely on the roads, not an insignificant issue for regulators worldwide. The UK government started looking into legal issues of driverless vehicles in 2016, and has since produced a road-testing pathway. A new transport bill, changes to insurance and the Highway Code are all being pursued, and legislation on safe use of driverless cars is expected by 2021.

Supply chain uses

Most commentators agree that fully autonomous vehicles without even a steering wheel will not be available until 2030, and most of the vehicles in their advanced stages of testing are passenger cars. But there are many firms leading the charge in logistics. Daimler, Volvo, Google and Uber are all working on their own versions of self-driving trucks, and are at the research and development stage. Mercedes-Benz’s semi-automatic truck prototype is scheduled for release in 2025. This model’s computer won’t completely replace the driver, but can take control of the truck on the open road and keep at a safe distance from other vehicles.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is at the forefront of adapting driverless technology for large ocean carriers. There are many technical and regulatory issues to be solved before it becomes a reality, but when it does, expect massive changes to the global supply chain as we know it.


The future of freight

In the haulage market, a consortium of European manufacturers – Daf, Daimler, Iveco, Man, Scania and Volvo – have been testing truck ‘platooning’, which allows one driver or crew to control a whole fleet of vehicles for long distances. This will increase road capacity and reduce accidents, fuel use and CO2 emissions.

Scania in Singapore has been doing the same, and Volvo Trucks has completed a trial with the University of California, hauling containers on the interstate highway from the port of Los Angeles.

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