Could a future with  self-driving vehicles benefit fleets?

Could a future with self-driving vehicles benefit fleets?

Richard Cuerden, TRL academy director, outlines the connected and autonomous vehicle technology developments on the horizon which could benefit the fleets of the future

Connected and autonomous vehicle (CAV) or self-driving technology is more than just a pipe dream. We are already seeing more and more autonomous vehicles enter the market, whether that is a new iteration of Tesla, or a prototype autonomous pod such as the ones featured in the TRL’s GATEway project currently taking place in the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London – a real-world test environment for connected and autonomous vehicles.

The speed at which vehicle automation develops will be dependent upon a number of factors, including public acceptance, enabling the infrastructure to support automation, and clarity over legal and insurance requirements. However, we are confident that we will see fully driverless vehicles being used for certain uses on British roads very soon, and the rate of progress will surprise many in the industry.

The use cases may be limited to certain roads and environments, such as motorways or pre-determined routes within cities, but the UK government recently announced plans to invest an additional £200m to bring autonomous vehicle research and development to the UK, and anticipates that the first cars will reach the market by 2021.

The future is equally compelling for HGV fleets when considering the wide range of benefits which autonomous trucking technology developments could offer the sector. We believe the UK has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialling the first generation of connected vehicle platoons, which will operate in a real-world environment to evaluate the potential benefits for fleets.

The first real-world operational platooning vehicle trial

The Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England recently appointed TRL to lead the first real-world operational trial of platooning vehicles on UK roads. Whilst all vehicles will still have drivers, the project will collect information and independently evaluate heavy vehicle platooning under real-world operational conditions.

The trial is seeing TRL lead a consortium of partners, including DAF Trucks, the UK market leader of HGV vehicle sales; Ricardo, which collaborated with TRL to deliver the HGV Platooning feasibility study completed for the DfT in 2014; and DHL, the global market leader in the logistics industry.

Trials will be tailored to the unique requirements of the UK’s roads and collate the evidence required to better understand the fuel efficiency and reduced emissions gains on offer for fleets. Data will also be available to support research into safety, acceptance by drivers and other road users, implications for future infrastructure and the commercial case for adoption.

HGV automation: compelling efficiency improvements

But there is already reason to believe that a move to autonomous vehicle technology could yield a wide range of benefits to fleets on adoption. A move towards greater automation in logistics could deliver compelling efficiency improvements for the UK’s haulage industry and transport network, and we are working with the government to determine the full scale of these opportunities.

Automated vehicle technology can boost efficiency, save money and reduce the likelihood of human error, improving safety. In terms of the impact on business’ bottom lines, autonomous vehicle developments will allow firms more control over their fleets, and ultimately their budgets. Equally, a move to automation could yield benefits for all road users, including a reduction in vehicle emissions and traffic.

In the HGV sector, automation is presenting logistics managers with a range of opportunities. One of the biggest issues currently facing the logistics and freight forwarding sector is a perceived skills shortage. A 2015 report by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust blamed an outdated perception among younger people that logistics is a low skilled industry. A move to automation could potentially mitigate this skills shortage risk by changing the requirements of the industry and the opportunities available to new starters.

The automated delivery sector: real-world initiatives

Automated delivery vehicles have long been an ambition for online retailers and their fleets. Amazon has been investigating delivery drones for many years, while UK technology pioneer Starship Technologies is working on ground drones development to replace people delivering goods. In terms of on-service fleet automation, progress has been slow to begin. However, Deutsche Post DHL (DPDHL), the world’s largest delivery company, recently announced plans to automate its delivery vehicles from 2018, upgrading its fleet of StreetScooter electric delivery vehicles.

The firm says that it can make use of its current delivery networks to improve fleet efficiency and to bring 24-hour, seven-days-a-week deliveries to consumers.

Safety first and key mass adoption considerations

There is one key hurdle to be jumped before CAV technology becomes widespread. This is ‘how safe must a CAV be before society will accept its use’?

Users will adapt to new technologies quickly if they are well designed and provide mobility in ways that feel safe, comfortable and enjoyable. First and foremost, passenger welfare and safety must be considered.

A successful fleet must integrate into all traffic conditions, and therefore would need to meet crashworthiness standards that offer sufficient occupant and pedestrian protection as they would be operating in a traditionally busy urban environment, for example. A way round this would be to create a segregated system for the autonomous vehicles to run on, although this would require major infrastructure development.

It will be some time before CAVs are developed that can complete end-to-end journeys and manage all driving scenarios and conditions more safely than human drivers. But it’s clear that this technology will be developed, which will free up time for drivers to engage safely in other activities, as well as yielding significant health and safety benefits for staff.

Indeed, driving is currently the most dangerous daily activity staff undertake, and yet, more than a fifth of UK companies don’t have a road safety policy in place to manage this aspect of workplace health and safety across their fleet. A reduction in driving time for employees constitutes duty of care on an employer’s behalf, thanks to the role this will play in reducing driver fatigue levels and lowering the risk of people making mistakes.

Data monitoring challenges to mass AV fleet adoption should also not be overlooked. For example, fleet operators must have access to a system that allows them to monitor each vehicle to ensure they are functioning at a safe level.

This ranges from mechanical faults to guaranteeing vehicles are clean enough for passengers to use on rotation.

GATEway project

The TRL-led GATEway initiative is an £8million research project that is investigating the use of autonomous vehicles in an urban environment. Working alongside a consortium of partners with funding from Innovate UK, the project is testing fully driverless, zero-emission vehicles for the movement of passengers and goods in the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London.

GATEway is one of a number of projects taking place in the Smart Mobility Living Lab: London – a real-world test bed that is designed to help organisations bring solutions to market faster by allowing them to be trialled and validated in a real‑world environment. Vehicle manufacturers, OEMs, mobility service providers, insurance companies and tech developers can use the ‘Living Lab’ to assist with research and development, concept testing and validation, launching new technology or services, and to understand how new technology could work in the real world.

In providing a welcoming and real‑life regulatory environment for testing, TRL is helping to accelerate the adoption of innovative technology and enabling the UK to play a pivotal role in the development of this global market over the next five years.

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