The government’s ambitious plan to explore the running of convoys of semi-autonomous lorries on UK motorways took everyone by surprise. Not least because autonomous vehicle technology is still very much in the development phase.
So can it be safe for UK roads next year? The idea of rows of heavy goods vehicles bound in convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle, is bound to raise a few questions.
“If successful, this technology could have major benefits for motorists and businesses in the UK,” says the Department of Transport. That may be true, but can we be sure that necessary safety targets can be achieved, consistently? The plan to start trials as early as next year seems a little ambitious to me.
The infrastructure question
Let’s consider another well-established transport system – the trains. Rail operators have regular infrastructure fail‑outs and need to make running repairs to points and signals even on long-established tracks, as any world-weary rail-commuter will tell you.
The difference between operating a train system and running convoys of self-drive lorries on miles of open motorways is that it is far more difficult to control and manage the lorry convoys. Like trains, they will be manned, but unlike trains their movement may not be safe-guarded by track-side signalling.
Control of the trucks will be autonomous, which means it will derive from the vehicles’ onboard systems, namely sensors, data processing and engine control.
The practical considerations
Let us assume the technology will create safe and reliable autonomous vehicles and trials will begin on UK roads in the next year or so. There will still be practical considerations before semi-autonomous convoys trundling up and down motorways becomes a viable commercial option for hauliers: financing, for example.
Technology invariably costs, and the cost of running the first autonomous vehicles could be high. According to Ernst & Young one way to finance autonomous fleets would be via fractional vehicle ownership/shared use.
The financing model will use blockchain technology. This describes a network of computers which is encrypted for financial-level secure transactions. The first distributed blockchain was conceived by Satoshi Nakamoto in 2008 and used to create the digital currency bitcoin.
The idea is that single vehicles, fleets and trips would be digitally logged on the blockchain platform. Transactions would then be automatically settled between owners, operators and third-party service providers through a single-source, usage-based payment system.
So the technology of autonomous vehicles will not only change the way cars and trucks are driven, but is also likely to change the financial landscape so that how vehicles are bought, operated and insured will change just as radically as the technology under the bonnet and behind the dashboard.
Consultant editor Richard Wilson writes a regular column for Electronics Weekly.