The UK government’s decision to start testing driverless trucks on Britain’s roads sparked a heated debate amongst hauliers, truck insurance providers and other road users. Some heralded the move as brilliant, citing the environmental and safety advantages that such vehicles could bring. Others pointed out the dangers of unmanned trucks and raised questions over the threat to drivers’ jobs. With over two decades of truck and truck insurance experience behind us, the team at Coversure Dudley have been considering the issue of driverless trucks and here is our assessment of the pros and cons of these vehicles.
Driverless Trucks: The Pros
Safety – odd as it may sound, one of the main advantages of any driverless vehicles is safety owing to the absence of human input. It’s been reported that 90% of all motor accidents have human error as a contributing factor: take that factor out and you should, theoretically, see a significant reduction in the number of accidents.
Truck Insurance Savings – a debate has been raging within insurance circles regarding insuring driverless cars for some time now. Some argue that as the manufacturers are effectively in control of the vehicle then they should be the ones who take out the truck insurance, while others say that just because a piece of software is commanding the vehicle it should still be the owner who should pay as it is their car.
The same basic arguments apply to truck insurance and the same promises of a reduction in truck insurance quotes apply too. Why should they be cheaper? Because accidents should be fewer as there’s no room for driver error and because in the event of an incident there will be reams of data to show what happened. There’s also the fact that as they will be tracked, the chances of them being stolen will be lower.
Environmental Impact – the environmental impact of trucks and trucking is a hot political issue at present. With the government determined to clean up the UK’s air, high emission vehicles such as these need all the green help they can get if they are not to be taxed out of existence as seems to be the fate for diesel cars. Across Europe commercial vehicles such as lorries and vans account for just 5% of the total number of vehicles yet they contribute 20% of the emissions. Driverless trucks are better driven and would have their routes changed automatically to avoid accidents and traffic jams and so will be less polluting.
Cost Savings – the Transport Research Laboratory believes that driverless trucks could save between 4-10% on fuel. Other savings include savings on tyres and mechanical parts as the lorries are being driven more efficiently, and time as the trucks are missing traffic jams and will spend less time off the road as they are involved in fewer accidents. Having trucks running in ‘platoons’ (where multiple vehicles are run from a single command vehicle) means much more can be transported at one time. Finally, at some point – and this is not being implemented in the forthcoming trial – there would also be a saving in terms of there being no driver and the trucks being able to operate for more hours a day.
Driverless Trucks: The Cons
Costs – given the congested state of the UK’s roads and motorways the savings offered by perfectly executed computer-controlled driving may not materialise. Other road users will cause them to stop and start, to change lanes and to speed up and slow down. Such driving will negate cost and environmental savings.
Safety – driverless trucks are based on software, and if there’s one thing we have learned about that in the past year or so is how easy it is to hack. The prospect of a terrorist organisation hacking a vehicle’s software is a chilling one and on a more mundane level it could leave companies open to be being held to ransom.
Privacy – these vehicles will be tracked 24-7 and who will have access to the data it feeds back? Will it only be available to the manufacturer and will they be able to trade that data on? The hacking issue comes in here too. Hacking a driverless vehicle could reveal an abundance of commercially sensitive data that could be used to hold a company to ransom.
Not Suitable For All Roads – in the US or Australia where roads are often straight for hundreds of miles, these platoons of trucks are fine. On the UK’s congested, twisting roads they are not so suitable and their use could be restricted to making deliveries to out of town depots where they will need to be broken down and reloaded for a driver to take them further. Such an operation would surely increase costs rather than reduce them.
Livelihoods – thousands of people depend on driving a truck for a living and these would rob many of them of that livelihood. In the short-term driverless trucks will be required to have a driver (meaning they aren’t driverless at all so what’s the point?) and in the long term they could mean the death of yet another employment avenue and have a devastating effect on people’s lives.
Driverless Trucks: On Their Way?
Driverless trucks aren’t on their way: they’re already here. The Australian mining industry has been using them for years, albeit in remote areas, and German manufacturer Daimler has an 18-wheeler that’s driverless in production. Taxi service Uber has recently purchased Otto, a self-driving trucking firm, and has its sights set firmly on the US trucking business.
The issue it seems is not whether we can but whether we should. Being hard headed about it you might well conclude that they are a good idea. Costs such as truck insurance cover and fuel would be lower and they would bring environmental benefits too. But that’s to overlook the people element: the people who would lose their jobs, the people who would feel less safe on our roads and the people who would seek to hack them for their own ends. Ultimately will they come? Probably. Are they a good idea? That remains to be seen…
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