Screen out the window of driverless truck
Tech

The Road To Driverless Truck Technology

Driverless trucks hauling freight up and down our highways might sound like the stuff of science fiction but they're coming – and could be with us sooner than we think.

By Shell on Aug. 03, 2021

This May, autonomous trucking company TuSimple achieved a new milestone for the technology, transporting a load of watermelons more than 1500km across the United States without a driver.

The trial used a truck fitted out with TuSimple's self-driving technology. The autonomous run covered the longest part of the journey, the 'middle mile', with a human driver performing the pick-up ('first mile') and delivery ('last mile') stages. According to the company, the trip was completed six hours faster than a human driver could manage.

TuSimple has another key trial scheduled for late 2021 – a 180km journey with freight that takes the human entirely out of the driving equation.

But this doesn’t necessarily indicate that truck drivers will be out of work. In an interview, Federico Collarte – who heads up Baraja, the Australian company behind the sensor technology used in the trucks – says automation is best suited to long-haul highway trucking.

"I was watching the TV program 'Outback Truckers' and those jobs are not going to be automated anytime soon, because those people are heroes crossing the creeks and desert," he said. "Human truckies will still be used for the specialised pick-up of cargo and getting it to the edge of a city, to the highway, but then the autonomous system would take over that long-haul boring highway."

Not just an experiment

TuSimple is out to transform the global truck freight industry with its self-driving technology, which makes it possible for a truck to see 1000m away, operate nearly continuously and, it's claimed, consume 10 per cent less fuel than a manually driven truck.

The company's Autonomous Freight Network (AFN) already operates a fleet of trucks across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. It plans to expand the network nationally in the US before launching its own fully driverless production trucks in 2024, allowing customers to use their TuSimple trucks on the network.

"Our ultimate goal is to have a nationwide transportation network consisting of mapped routes connecting hundreds of terminals to enable efficient, low-cost long-haul autonomous freight operations," says TuSimple President Cheng Lu.

After rolling out in the US, TuSimple is taking its technology to the world, starting with Europe and Asia.

What’s happening in Australia?

Australia is a world-leader when it comes to self-driving technology in the mining industry, with fully driverless trucks now rolling around many of our mines, controlled from thousands of kilometres away.

But our road-transport industry isn't as well placed to capitalise on global autonomous-vehicle developments. KPMG's annual Autonomous Vehicles Readiness Index (AVRI) measures a country's level of preparedness for autonomous vehicles and in 2020 Australia ranked 15th out of 30. Long story short – our infrastructure, technology and government policy all need improvement to make it a reality, but steps are being taken.

Infrastructure Australia has cited autonomous vehicles as the most significant future development for the freight-transport sector and called on governments to encourage greater use of the technology. The National Transport Commission (NTC) is working to develop reforms to ensure our road laws can support self-driving vehicles and the NSW Government has established the Driverless Vehicle Centre for Excellence in Sydney, where our burgeoning self-driving industry can hone the technology for local conditions.

On the ground, new infrastructure projects, including Victoria’s North East Link Road project, are considering autonomous vehicles in their business cases.

Across the country, the technology is being trialled to help inform future approaches to policy, regulation, investment and operations. Transport for NSW has been testing autonomous buses since 2017. The Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia has been trialling a driverless electric bus and even given residents rides in it on public roads. A 2020 NTC report noted that there had already been 22 trials of automated shuttles in this country alone.

And while Australia isn’t on TuSimple’s list yet, it is on their road map for the future.

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