It’s said that “driverless (vehicles) could represent the most fundamental change to transport since the invention of the internal combustion engine” and UK Chancellor George Osborne has announced the first of funding for trials of driverless lorries on British roads during the latest 2016 Budget. These convoy-like packs will be travelling nose-to-tail, communicating using cameras and radar connected to each lorry in the pack, as well as Wi-Fi broadcasting connecting them from above. Each lorry will have (for the meantime) a driver within monitoring over the automation, and taking control of the lorries when leaving the motorway and to depart to the various destinations of which the testing is to take place. The 2016 trials of driverless lorries in the UK will take place on the M6 in Cumbria where junctions are few and far between and with low traffic density in comparison to other motorways across the UK.
George Osborne has used his budget speech to show the world that Britain embraces technological advancements, pledging to eliminate regulation that disallows driverless vehicles on UK motorways.
“At a time of great uncertainty in the global economy, Britain must take bold decisions now to ensure it leads the world when it comes to new technologies and infrastructure”.
But with an advancement in technology, allowing a vehicle to automate itself, who will be to blame if an accident occurs during driverless travel? With a fully automated vehicle, risk may be put upon the manufacturer rather than the individual driver (or passenger in this aspect) and it may be down to the manufacturer themselves to distribute pre-insured vehicles to their consumers.
Whether or not the manufacturers will be prepared to do that is another question, but in the meantime it seems all risks are down to the driver, as seen with the need for insurance with Tesla’s self-driving vehicles. These vehicles, like any other self-driving vehicles in their market can be quoted for regular vehicle or business car insurance with some insurance providers offering levels cheaper prices thanks to their safety rating.
But the insurance industry is still largely unclear as to where blame will be placed in the event of an accident involving a driverless lorry or any other type of automated vehicle.
David Williams, head of AXA UK, has said:
“Driverless vehicles are a challenge for the insurance industry but this technology does have the potential to revolutionise people’s lives for the better.
The UK has the most sophisticated insurance market in the world. The world will, to a large extent, be looking at how we deal with the legal and insurance implications that this and similar technologies pose.”
Concerns over Driverless Vehicles
There have been numerous trials for driverless vehicles, most famously with Google’s self-driving cars that have so far been hugely successful in California. But UK roads are very different and many have raised concerns over the feasibility of the lorry platooning scheme and the risks involved unique to UK roads.
Edmund King, president of AA, has cited:
“The problem with the UK motorway network is that we have more entrances and exits of our motorways than any other motorways in Europe or indeed the world. Therefore, it’s very difficult to have a 44 tonne 10-lorry platoon, because other vehicles need to get past the platoon to enter or exit the road.”
Other concerns involve the human motorists sharing the road with driverless trucks. A research report by IET (Institution of Engineering and Technology) has shown that human drivers may change their behaviour when driving alongside autonomous vehicles, mimicking the driverless behaviour of leaving less space between vehicles but being unable to react as quickly as the computer controlled vehicle can, potentially causing an accident themselves.
Self-driving lorries have been trialled before in the United States, along wide open high ways in the Nevada desert. But it’s a completely different situation when the driverless lorries are going to be driving down the M25 during rush hour. Even in the US, these lorries are only designed to autonomously drive for long, open stretches and are currently incapable of manoeuvring more complex roads, requiring a driver to be present to tackle the city streets.
The Benefits of Driverless Lorries
An amazing combination of technologies allow for lorry platooning on motorways, saving potentially up to 10% of fuel by minimising air resistance.
The lorries will continually be scanning the area around them using cameras and sensors, looking out for other vehicles on their radar, and using GPS to adjust their acceleration, braking and steering for motorway platooning – making driving decisions at a fraction of a second. According to research by AXA UK, the implementation of self-driving haulage vehicles could save almost £34 billion after a decade across labour, fuel, insurance and vehicle utilisation. Due to the computer controlled efficiency of driverless lorries, there would be fewer accidents caused by human error resulting in lower insurance premiums. In addition to the savings made from low fuel consumption due to the more efficient driving, the fact that a driver wouldn’t need to be present also means that the lorries would not be restricted to working hours or driver salary.
The lower cost of haulage may even be reflected in the end product’s retail pricing to the consumer, so there are many benefits to driverless lorries in the future. But the question is: are we ready for them now?