By now we have all heard or seen something about driverless cars. And whether you find the idea of robots driving on our roads intriguing or frightening, the truth of the matter is that many companies believe it to be a very real future for travel.
With household names such as Ford, Google, Uber and Tesla all throwing their hats into the ring (as well as a few million pounds), it was only going to be a matter of time before one of these automotive giants tried to up their game and explore different uses of the driverless technology. In this case, Uber teamed up with Volvo to create an almost driverless truck. I say almost driverless because the driver still has to drive the truck from the pick-up to the motorway, then from the motorway to the drop-off point, just like any other HGV.
Once the truck is on the motorway, the driverless technology takes over with the push of a button, like some sort of cruise-control/Transformer hybrid. The truck uses a series of lasers mounted around the chassis to map out the surrounding area of the vehicle and get a full 360 degree view of the road. And a front-mounted camera can see and recognise road signs from hundreds of miles away. All this information gets poured into an on-board computer that makes millions of calculations a second and adapts to the ever-changing road 'on-the-fly'. The computer also uses GPS with advanced mapping to help position the truck on the road and monitor its speed, ensuring it is traveling as safely as possible. Much like auto-pilot on planes, these trucks still need to have somebody on board to do the really tricky stuff like driving through busy cities, parking and, of course, blocking the middle lane of the motorway. And who knows: if driverless technology can be applied to cars and trucks, then it shouldn't be too long before it shows up in vans like the ones we use.
Logistic and courier services could benefit from driverless technologies. As the trucks can drive themselves all day and all night without getting tired or having to stop, deliveries over long distances would be much quicker. The cost of fuel would decrease, as a computer driving the vehicle would do so more efficiently. And, above all, the roads could be safer. According to Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Google, their small fleet of cars have driven themselves over 2 million miles and yet have only had a total of 18 accidents as of Feb 2016, most of which were still caused though human error.
But with pros there will always be cons, such as the ethics of having a computer in charge of a very heavy, very dangerous truck, with a human life and possibly expensive cargo on board. Another issue would be the security of the software: would it be possible for hackers to somehow make the vehicle crash? If the technology was developed to the point of having fully-autonomous trucks, what would happen to the many dedicated drivers and small companies in the courier and delivery sectors? There are many tough questions that I don’t think we will have an answer for any time soon, but one thing is for sure: the future of our industry will be affected in a massive way.
Then again, if this video of an autonomous car hitting a presenter at low speed on live TV is anything to go by, I think we’re still a fair few decades away from worrying about our jobs!