HANDS FREE: Could the Coast be the site of a driverless car trial program?
HANDS FREE: Could the Coast be the site of a driverless car trial program?

Heartbeat: It’s robo trucking

IMAGINE: Hair done and ready for work, you climb into your car, where a prominent switch on the dash glows blue.

You start the engine, punch in your destination to the GPS device and hit the blue switch. Now it's time to roll back your seat and relax, as the car ferries you to work.

Hitting the blue switch has converted your car to an automated, or driverless vehicle. All that's left to do is read the morning newspaper while the car's manufacturer (and some clever proprietary software) takes control of your vehicle, not you.

If you are anything like me, you're having trouble with this picture.

Immediately I'm thinking of the potted Stuart Hwy from Alice to Darwin and the myriad of things that might go wrong: A kangaroo jumps onto the road, a drunk driver swerves wildly, a pedestrian steps out unexpectedly.

Last year however Volvo completed a series of tests on a driverless vehicle in South Australia, proving the technology is already with us.

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill made quite a fuss over the successful testing, predicting an international driverless vehicle industry worth $90billion in just 15 years.

The SA tests were organised in conjunction with researchers at the $10million a year Australian Driverless Vehicle Initiative (ADVI), a program under the auspices of the Australian Road Research Board (ARRB).

While the test results are impressive, researchers are not stopping at cars: Many have their sights set on trucks in a vision that might just revolutionise freight in the north.

Giant trucks without a driver at the wheel are already a regular sight on some Australian mines.

Rio Tinto mines at Yandicoogina, Nammuldi and Hope Downs, in Western Australia, started moving all of their iron ore using automated trucks in October.

Seven-metre high driverless "dumpies" are steered from 1200km away in Perth by remote computer operators working like drone pilots. Shifts run 24/7 throughout the year, hauling about 20 million tonnes of ore and saving a reported 500 work hours annually.

It's all part of an overall shift to increased automation in Australia's mining operations and, as such, is nothing new.

BHP started using driverless trucks at Jimblebar in the Pilbara in 2013, with Fortescue Metals and Caterpillar citing similar plans, though Rio reportedly has the most advanced fleet.

The military is interested as well: Zombie trucks can traverse no-go conflict zones without putting at risk the lives of soldier drivers.

But surely allowing fully-automated driverless trucks on the Stuart Hwy can only end in disaster?

Managing director of the ARRB Gerard Waldron thinks not.

Furthermore, according to Mr Waldron, the potential cost savings to Australian freight are enormous.

"The cost of trucking in Australia is in thirds: one-third wages, one-third fuel and one-third the standing cost of the truck.

"If you can take a driver out altogether, you've just saved one-third of your costs."

Several truck drivers I know would be foaming at the mouth at the very idea.

But the savings don't stop there: A software-controlled truck programmed for fuel efficiency could record substantial fuel savings.

In fact, Mr Waldron forecasts driverless trucks would save the Australian freight industry 40% on overheads, with flow-on benefits to everything from exports to the price of food on supermarket shelves.

But that's not all.

"Go forward a few years: If you don't need a driver in the truck, then it doesn't need a cab, so there's a tonne of tare that you can take off the truck.

"And then, because you don't have a driver, you can legally run the thing 24/7; there are only a limited number of hours a human can stay awake but a computer can stay awake indefinitely."

While testing has so far been mostly in controlled environments, two automated Daimler trucks are already hauling freight across Nevada in the US and truck tests are under way in Europe.

It seems even the rough old Stuart Hwy would pose no obstacle.

"The Stuart Hwy is one of the simpler driving environments.

"If you've got a road train that is rolling down that road and has its radar looking ahead for trouble, it's probably going to do a better job than humans.

"It's diligent all the time; it's human to not give our full attention all hours of the day.

"I'm not bashing truck drivers but they do a lot more miles than you or I and therefore have a lot more exposure."

And the statistics agree. Although trucks are only 5% of the national vehicle population, they are represented in more than 18% of crashes, deaths and injuries.

"If you are trying to tackle road safety, a truck is a good place to put a computer,: Mr Waldron said.

With regard to risk however, it is the vehicle manufacturer that is at the wheel, legally speaking, in a driverless truck.

"Volvo says it will take the same responsibility as a human would under those circumstances.

"Humans can be on other tasks; the driver is not expected to monitor the car and not expected to suddenly take charge of the vehicle.

"But a driver can take charge of the car anytime they want to, like a cruise control."

But what of more tricky environments, say, when it's snowing?

"The road agency will simply send a signal to cars that might otherwise be operating autonomously.

"The driver won't be able to engage that (automated) function.

"In a transition (period), it gets people used to being in a driverless car … something similar can happen to trucks."

The ADVI plans to conduct testing on trucks in Australia during 2016.

There is a slim chance some testing could take place in the Territory.

First up is what Mr Waldron calls a "platooning" demonstration, in which a group of heavy vehicles travels closely head to tail to achieve aerodynamic savings on fuel.

The lead driver operates his or her vehicle but the following trucks are slaved to the leader via computer software even though a driver remains in the cab, just in case.

Mr Waldron estimates that at speed, the "platoon" will close the gap between trucks to half a second.

"We spend twice as much per dollar of GDP on transport as the average OECD country.

"This is partly the tyranny of distance but it means we are internationally uncompetitive to begin with.

"The potential to reduce these massive costs could put us into a much better economic position."

And that could happen within 10 years, Mr Waldron said.

"There is no technical reason we won't be; the only reasons we won't are either economic or the regulations won't permit it."

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Mr Waldron has plans for a driverless train.

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