Autonomous commercial vehicles will shape our jobs and lives

Self-driving cars could be on our roads within 10 years, but autonomous commercial vehicles that will disrupt our jobs, public services and lives are on their way, and there's nothing we can do to stop them

The garbage truck drives down the road and picks up trash, while a digger is creating a trench on its own, and a truck has just pulled into its stop to make a delivery. It sounds like an ordinary series of events – which happen every hour of every day day – but all these vehicles are autonomous.

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Image courtesy of the University of Kaiserslautern.

After the revolution of driverless cars, commercial vehicles will be next in line. Many of them are already being worked on by researchers, but in most cases they’re a long way from being used on a commercial scale. Yet, they have the potential to disrupt our daily lives and we should start to plan for their impact.

“In this area we have another dimension, now people from the commercial vehicle side are starting to think about it, because you should do something with a commercial vehicle,” says Karsten Berns, who is in charge of mobile robots at the University of Kaiserslautern.

His team, working in the west of Germany, is moving towards making autonomous commercial vehicles a reality and, like consumer vehicles, the number that are being used for commercial work continues to rise.

In 2014 alone there were more than 22 million commercial vehicles produced across the world, according to statistics website Statista, and in Europe there were more than 800,000 new commercial vehicles added to the roads during the first five months of this year.

These type of vehicles are used across delivery services, work by public authorities, construction sites and everything in between.

“You have the machines in cities that collect the garbage,” Berns says while considering what areas autonomous commercial vehicles could change.

“Such a machine may not be fully autonomous, but you could reduce the people who work with such machines.

“So maybe you only have one driver and if something goes really wrong he intervenes, but the rest is done with robot arms which perhaps catch the garbage and put it in the truck.”

Creating commercial vehicles

The implications of work vehicles that are able to control themselves are huge, although this doesn’t stop them being developed around the world. As well as trust, safety and economic viability, there is an unknown area around jobs.

You only have to look as far as the CEO of Uber saying that if Elon Musk’s Tesla can produce 500,000 self-driving cars by 2020 then Uber would buy them all. Uber is no stranger to controversy, and whether you consider their service as being run using commercial vehicles is a question for another time, but running a fleet of autonomous commercial taxis would change the industry once again.

Meanwhile in Australia a robot builder that can lay up to 1,000 bricks per hour is being developed and if you look to the country’s vastly wealthy mining industry, there are already self-driving trucks working at numerous sites.

Despite the recurring ‘won’t anyone think of the jobs?’ question that appears each time an industry or a technology is faced with more automation, it’s highly likely that commercial vehicles will, like their consumer counterparts, become autonomous in coming years.

I expect a lot of commercial vehicles will get assistance systems in the next 5 years

Berns says that the level of automation that is introduced will vary upon each industry, and in a large part, how much the industry will invest in its technologies.

“I expect a lot of commercial vehicles will get assistance systems in the next 5 years,” Berns said. “So this will start with simple ones, similar to what we have on cars – for example maybe you hold a specific line and that’s where they go.”

He says there is particular potential for agriculture to be an early adopter as vehicles often operate away from other humans and increasing food supply issues mean more investment is forthcoming. Berns added that the technology involved in modern tractors is “very much” like modern cars.

Detecting the path ahead

Safety is one of the biggest concerns that Berns has about the developing automated commercial vehicles, and it is a claim that holds much validity. In the UK around 590,000 days of work were lost due to accidents in the construction industry in 2013/14.

Particularly for construction, there will be a fear of personal injury claims and litigation for injuries and accidents cause by automated vehicles; even Google’s self-driving cars aren’t infallible from accidents.

In part this risk is increased by the unpredictability of environments– Google’s incidents were all caused human errors of drivers in different cars – that cause safety worries. To this end Berns’ team has worked on creating “autonomous control of a mobile bucket excavators,” in other words, it is creating self-digging diggers.

The long-term goal of the project is to be able to allow an 18 ton excavator -a standard purchase with autonomous tech added on – to perform landscaping tasks. So far, as can be seen from the University’s video above, they have been able to make the excavator load a truck that’s close by.

But Berns says that much of the work that led to this was creating maps of the environments and working out how the technology can interact with them. Unlike roads, the terrain faced by a vehicle on a construction site will be uneven and unpredictable.

“We recognised the environment, which is not easy because on a construction site it is not that lane environment, so you don’t see everything around, so you have to have maps that are frequently updated and even if you don’t see something you must have some strategies that don’t throw everything out of the way,” he said.

“We have looked at which way the arm can be restricted in movement if we recognise an object or a person or whatever.” He added “if you cannot show you are able to detect [what is around the vehicle] you will never be allowed to run.”

Hitting the road

Autonomous commercial vehicles that are running on the road have more of a chance of becoming a reality before those working on varying terrains.

For instance Daimler’s self-driving truck has already been tested on the roads in the US and in recent days the company has been seeking permission to test it on the roads in Germany.

The use of the self-driving trucks has been compared, by those from Daimler, to being similar to autopilot technology that is used in planes. “We believe it’s safer and more efficient if, on these long highway [journeys], the truck drives by itself,” a spokesperson told the BBC. 

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Image and featured image courtesy of Daimler

As this technology develops, self-driving trucks will become more capable and be able to drive on roads smaller than highways, although Berns warns that “it’s not so easy to transfer”.

This will be when autonomous commercial vehicles start to change the way that we think about jobs and how the autonomous vehicles will change our working environments.

As Berns highlights, there are many small, incremental steps that need to be overcome before a vehicle is doing all the work for us. What’s certain is that this change isn’t going to happen overnight.

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