Hands off

COMMENT: Come on, admit it, who hasn’t had their interest piqued by the driverless units being proudly paraded by a growing number of companies? For me, the whole thing has that special science-fiction edge that’s just too hard to ignore, writes Carly Fields.

While the commercial car market has been making definite inroads into the automated field with Google’s and Tesla’s efforts, ships will be driving themselves by 2020, according to development pioneer Rolls-Royce.


Trucks - the less sexy road users – have also been dipping their toes in the driverless water with successful truck platooning projects celebrated in Asia, the US and Europe.


However, one big hurdle to all this automation is the long lead time for the technology to move from prototype to everyday reality. Up until now, manufacturers and developers have focused on building new, meaning that driverless options remain just out of reach: Daimler’s autonomous Freightliner truck isn’t expected to be commercially available until 2025.


But, things are changing. A group of ex-Google engineers launched Otto, an autonomous trucking start-up, earlier this year. Just eight months in and already it has joined forces with Uber. Together, they promise “self-driving trucks together with a marketplace [creating] a virtuous cycle where everyone benefits”.


The difference? Otto is focused on retrofits. It’s less about concepts and more about practical application, getting the technology out there as soon as possible. Otto has already bought and retro-fitted three Volvo cabs with lidar, radar and cameras, and driven some fully autonomous miles on the highways of Nevada. Its self-driving kit is expected to cost $30,000 – a fraction of the price of a new automated Daimler cab – and can be fitted to any truck built after 2013.


This rush to market does comes at a price as Otto focuses solely on “exit to exit” on highways and will not navigate trickier back roads or town routes.


Otto’s gameplan brings the idea of driverless trucks serving ports closer than ever. Ports lucky enough to have highways running to their door could see the empty cab rolling up to the gate within a few years. Thought you had eight years to get prepared? Think again.


Can ports tap into this accelerated truck automation drive; can partnerships be made to take advantage of Uber’s truck marketplace?


There are practical realities to consider as well: how to mesh automated gates with automated trucks; getting the TOS to ‘talk’ to the trucks; emergency preparedness if something goes wrong.


The driverless truck concept just moved a great deal closer; are ports ready for the hands to be taken off the wheel?


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