Driverless lorries on our motorways? That sounds a bit DAF

Nick Booth, freelance IT and communications writer

They call it platooning, but I can think of another word for lorries that act like trains, says Nick Booth.

Driverless lorries: now there’s an idea to strike fear into everyone, whether you’re on four wheels, two wheels or two feet on the footpath. It seems that now lorries can be driverless, they can gang up on us too.

What fresh horrors could these Teamsters inflict on society now they’re powered by the IoT? Chip maker NXP and its truck making partner DAF invited us to Munich to see these lorries in action.

Thanks to the invention of Clara Otero, NXP’s director of systems innovaton, intelligent lorries can daisy chain themselves into a ‘train’ of up to seven huge articulated vehicles. If that wasn’t bad enough, they are capable of such tight co-ordination that they can travel practically bumper to bumper at up to 60 mph (96 km/h).

The technical logic is pretty sound. One lorry leads and all the rest follow its commands. The front lorry – at present – will be driven by a human. All the human driver’s decisions over speed, steering and braking are relayed, via five-channel industrial-strength WiFi, to each lorry further behind in the procession. They call this Platooning.

The performance statistics for Platooning sound pretty convincing. In an automated convoy, the breaking distance of the robot-lorries is much shorter, because Lorry A can tell Lorry B of its intention to brake in a fraction of the time it would take a human driver to spot a break light and react. “Fernando Alonso has a breaking time of 80 millseconds and he’s the best racing driver in the world. A lorry can do it in 40,” said Jack Martens, DAF’s project manager for advanced technology.

The shorter breaking distance means that Platooning lorries can drive much more closely together. The subsequent slipstreaming effect is so powerful that lorries use 10% less fuel.

The great thing about automated lorries is that they won’t get distracted. Too many humans use their mobiles phones at the wheel but many lorry drivers now watch DVDs to kill the boredom of long journeys, according to one of the DAF demo drivers. So, there’s an argument to be made that robots could be safer behind the wheel than a human.

The radar technology installed on these new trucks could take safety to an even higher level. There’s a combination of inputs, including video, lidar (laser range finding), radar and ultrasonic systems, which gives the automated driver a far great intelligence about the lorry’s surroundings. It can detect accidents waiting to happen.

If a kamikaze cyclist looks like they might be tempted to nip through a dangerous gap, the lorry can take evasive action. If a car is approaching a T-junction from the side at speed, the automated lorry can sense it early, whereas a human wouldn’t see it until too late. In both cases, the evasive action taken by the lorry would be to slow down or stop.

That’s where this story, much as I wanted to be converted to the cause of Platooning, begins to sound less convincing. I suspect that, in the interests of safety, ‘Platoon Halt’ would be a command in constant use once car drivers know they can cut them up. Which wouldn’t matter too much, if this was a labour-saving arrangement, but each lorry will have to have a human on board, on standby in case they need to take over.

They have nothing to do but they have to be on alert in case the front lorry driver hits the disconnect button, which then confers instant responsibility on each driver. How on earth will the drivers in lorries 2, 3, 4 and 5 be able to stay awake?

Platooning is an example of superb engineering but I can’t see this happening any time soon. However, there is a case for tarmaccing over the railways and using them as private roads for automated lorries. If they took all the lorries off Britain’s M1 motorway, we wouldn’t need to spend £50 billion (62 billion) on a high-speed rail network, as the motorways would be so empty we could raise the speed limit to 120 miles an hour.

What should we call these lorries that try to look like locomotives: trainsvestites?

The author of this blog is Nick Booth.

Comment on this article below or via Twitter: @IoTNow_ OR @jcIoTnow

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