The five stages of automation
AUTONOMOUS trucks are here. Today. The technology is highly developed, mature and sophisticated.
But autonomous trucks are not coming onto our roads and highways any time soon, not in any numbers to cause driver unemployment or to change the landscape of road transport.
While the technology has been developed far beyond the needs to drive a truck, think military attack drones with precision missile deployment working in a three-dimensional space globally, the needs to start, stop, steer, and generally manage a truck are comparatively simple.
The Volvo group's Sweden based guru on automation, Hayder Wokil, will not be drawn on a year or a timeline for widespread introduction on public roads.
He sees many hoops yet needed to be jumped through, both political and technological.
Not the least of these potential problems, Mr Wokil agrees, is the likelihood of hacking the current systems in spite of the use of high levels of encryption.
An aggressive hacker could, today, stop the entire freight task of a nation if it was relying on autonomous trucks, or in our current global environment of fear, hack a truck and use it as a terrorist weapon.
I asked Hayder Wokil if there was an answer to protect society from the dangers of hacking.
"No, not at present. But we will,” he said, not prepared to put any date onto the technical evolution.
Volvo is a large company whose core marketing values, perceived and in reality, are based on safety. This is a reasonable set of conservative eyes to look at the development of automation in road transport.
To paint a wider picture of the development of autonomous trucks, Mr Wokil explained the five levels of automation.
From a basis of no computerised management of a truck, the levels start to build and we are already partway along this path.
The society of automotive engineers international (SAE) developed these levels in 2014.
Level 1: This level introduces automated assistance on acceleration, deceleration and braking with a human operator monitoring the road and maintaining steering control.
This system is with us today in many sophisticated trucks with adaptive cruise control (ACC) where a truck will indicate road or lane wandering and take autonomous action if a collision is about to occur not noticed by the driver.
Level 2: This level brings the introduction of partial automation where driving software handles all steering, braking and acceleration tasks. All the collision avoidance technology of Level 1 is included. The driver sits at the wheel and is responsible for monitoring the truck, watching traffic and responding to system prompts.
Level 3: Called conditional automation, all steering, braking and navigation tasks are controlled by software however the driver remains at the seat but will be allowed to follow other pursuits, ready to resume control when instructed by the system.
Level 4: This level is described as high automation, where the automated system controls all operational and tactical decisions related to driving assuming good weather and traffic conditions. A driver is in the truck but does not have to be in the driver's seat.
Level 5: Full automation will handle all driving tasks, including failsafe manoeuvres under any traffic or weather conditions. No driver will be required, this is a fully autonomous truck.
At the moment Hayder Wokil says "Level 3 and beyond do not fit with our safety image and safety thinking at present because if the driver does not resume control of the truck, the vehicle could be running uncontrolled”.
Yet Level 5 is here technologically and is being used in non-public road situations such as mine sites where the working environment is totally owned by a company and the trucks do not interact in any public landscape.
Platooning, a slightly hybrid version of these levels is being pushed by the Europeans. Much work is being done on this where a lead truck would have a driver probably in a Level 2 or Level 3 with two, three, or four other driverless trucks following closely linked electronically.
"We have already got that system in Australia,” I said. "It's called a road train.”
If we have the technology now, what are the hurdles stopping the introduction of autonomous trucks to the highways of the world.
And let's face it, they are being introduced on specialised roads and specialised tasks, with manufacturers, both European and North American, making it clear that this is the direction of truck manufacture.
The main hurdles according to Hayder Wokil are broader technological challenges such as introducing technological redundancy that can overdrive and combat any efforts to attack the management network through hacking or other breakdowns.
Secondly it is political will in the various countries, with an expectation that there will be a public resistance to the introduction of driverless trucks and it may take some time.
Possibly even a generation, to get that acceptance, like the introduction of genetically modified grains is a comparative example.
Whatever happens, most development work will be carried out in confined areas near Gothenburg in Sweden but Australia is seen as a major trialling and testing area as driverless trucks develop their wings.
"Australia is one of the test areas. You have tough conditions of roads, from the weather and the heat and the dust so that will give us a lot of input for our product development department for when we introduce a new feature or a new system.
"We have the infrastructure for testing here, the knowledge so with the testing we are on the edge of breaking new ideas coming with automation,” Hayder said.
I suggested 2030 as an introductory date for driverless trucks in Australian line haul.
The Volvo man would not be drawn, but taking what he told me into context, I think we can expect autonomous trucks to be working in specialised applications very soon, as they are already in some mine sites, but as an accepted part of our national road transport task, widespread introduction is still a fair way distant beyond the horizon of the future.