Who will be in the driving seat?

Small personal transport like Google’s driverless car is capturing the public’s imagination.

vehicle finance brokers might want to consider that the breakthrough might come at the other end of the spectrum – the 38-tonne end.

The trouble with filling cities with little automated pods is that they are surrounded by chaos, which means to fit in they have to behave a little chaotically themselves. This does not apply so much to the steady progress of a freight-carrying 18-wheeler.

If we could fast-forward 100 years to a point where they only have to share the road with their own kind, automated cars would not cause any issues at all. Granted, Standard & Poor’s says that in the event of a driverless accident “liability could fall to the manufacturer, the software developer, or even to the person who last serviced the car” which could keep the lawyers busy.

Still, one could even automate a car so bedecked with CCTV and computing power that it could assign blame for any collision and extract a fine to cover the self-assessed repairs, taking instant contactless payment before driving itself to the nearest repair shop. No one need ever know the accident had happened.

There is no recorded case that I could find of two driverless cars colliding with one another, but that has to be largely because there are so few of them out there, even if each one is racking up substantial mileage – Google’s own fleet of around 20 driverless vehicles has clocked up more than one million miles in six years, a statistic that illustrates both points simultaneously. Tempting for the pro-driverless lobby to point out how incredibly safe their vehicles are; presumably they will be even safer around each other?

At the moment human drivers tend to make the same kind of mistakes based around impatience and behavioural assumptions. If you are buying a fleet of these things in 2022, assuming human-piloted traffic continues to make up the majority of road users, you might want your robotic cars to pay closer attention to the car behind than to what’s up ahead.
Until about a year ago, every accident involving a driverless car had been pinned on the human in the vehicle behind that failed to stop. But now the accumulated mileage has exposed the first weaknesses – weakness that we would, to be fair, have seen in a human tasked with racking up a million miles too.
Articulated lorries already deny drivers many of the choices made by private vehicle owners – how fast to travel, when to take a break, which lane to occupy, which route to take around low bridges. Drivers of delivery vehicles, and those who have to overtake them, expect predictable behaviour.

Then add in the prospect of making that delivery faster, using less fuel, because computers won’t grow too impatient to benefit from a safely spaced slipstream. And, more convincingly, because they do not get sleepy.

After 5.5 hours of driving, HGV drivers must take a break of at least 30 minutes. Or, within any 8.5-hour period they must take at least 45 minutes in breaks, plus a break of at least 30 minutes at the end of this period, unless it is the end of the working day. They cannot work more than 16 hours between starting and finishing work, and must take a 10-hour rest before the first duty and immediately after the last duty in a working week, plus a rest of at least 10 hours between two working days (or spreadovers) – which can be reduced to 8.5 hours up to three times a week. Or, just use an automated lorry and it will sit happily in a convoy and stop only when the fuel runs out.

Who is working on this concept already? The Germans, who have the technology, and the good folk of Nevada, who have the space. We have not been so quick in this country to pick up the baton. In March 2016, we were told that driverless lorries would be trundling through Cumbria before the end of the year, but there has been silence since then. Hopefully the vehicle finance industry will be waiting there to welcome the new technology with open arms – so long as the bugs have been ironed out…