Semi-autonomous Truck Platoons in Europe

Is the emerging autonomous vehicle technology suitable for freight vehicles in Australia?

A demonstration convoy involving six truck manufacturers drove across Europe in April 2016, sponsored by the Netherlands transport agency.

These trucks used autonomous driving technologies to communicate wirelessly and follow in close succession. Semi-autonomous refers to the need for a driver at least in the first truck.

Platooning allows for shorter gaps between trucks on the road. The required distance between trucks driving in convoy differs across Europe: the Netherlands requires a ‘safe distance’, France 50 metres and  Germany ‘2 seconds’ driving time.

What are the suggested benefits for autonomous freight vehicles?

  • safer, as technology can react quicker than human drivers
  • more fuel-efficient and lower emissions, from smoother driving
  • lower operating costs, with fewer drivers
  • faster freight movements, with less traffic congestion and reduced travel times.

Implications for Australia

Some of the challenges in the Australian context include:

  • potential only for urban and inter-city motorways, otherwise not viable because of cost of producing precise maps and providing accurate GPS, together with the combination of long distances and low traffic volumes
  • already have road trains in regional and remote areas, limiting any potential benefit of switching to autonomous trucks
  • autonomous vehicle technology isn’t quite there yet for complex decision making in mixed traffic conditions
  • regulatory framework and infrastructure is lagging and develops slowly for emerging transport innovations – for example consider the responses by governments to Uber.

I don’t think we are likely to see many semi-autonomous truck platoons in Australia any time soon.

Further reading see SBS article A fleet of trucks just drove themselves across Europe.

When do you think autonomous trucks will be in use for freight transport across Australia? 

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