Autonomous vehicle evolution starts now

By: Paul Howell

Driverless trucks and cars a lot closer than many think

Autonomous vehicle evolution starts now
A prototype autonomous truck from Mercedes-Benz

Autonomous vehicles are now far more fact than fiction, with researchers saying they are likely to be part of the Australian road network before 2019.

With Rio Tinto already using autonomous vehicles on private mine sites (outside of the public road network), they say transport companies should be preparing now in order to take advantage of the opportunities that autonomous vehicles will bring to public roads also.

Digital lead for consultancy Accenture Australia David Maunsell says the pace of change is already exceeding predictions from just 12 months ago. "At the end of 2013, a well-regarded researcher predicted at least four companies would announce plans to build driverless vehicles by 2016," he says. "As it turns out, at least five major announcements were made in 2014 alone."

Google, Mitsubishi, Mercedes, Volvo, and BMW have all signaled ongoing developments of autonomous vehicles. Mitsubishi is looking specifically at self-driving heavy vehicles for use in intercity and interstate freight operations, Maunsell says.

These may not necessarily be completely autonomous vehicles, but rather what are being referred to as "pseudo driverless vehicles". These still require a human operator at the start and end of a journey, but are also able to be switched on to "auto-pilot" in between. "The driver can sleep, or attend to business administration tasks [while the autonomous driving is engaged]," Maunsell says.

He now expects working prototypes to be available by 2015, but says more will be needed if industries and the wider economy are to take full advantage of the opportunity.

He says autonomous vehicles will eventually require a comprehensive "eco-system" of associated businesses, standards, regulations, and infrastructure. While this will naturally evolve as more and more autonomous vehicles become available and used, the opportunities for early adopters of this economy-wide disruption are plentiful, Maunsell says.

Will autonomous vehicles be safe? Maunsell has every confidence, noting that the bar set by human operation of vehicles is not necessarily high. "Machines don’t suffer fatigue, and have 1000s of sensors watching the environment around them – not just two eyes," he says. They are also able to calculate distances, speeds, and directions far more accurately than human instinct and "if all else fails, can stop quickly and safely".

As well as increased safety, autonomous vehicles are likely to offer transport operators greater planning and scheduling capabilities, and longer lasting equipment.

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