Will self-driving technology ever be viable for HGVs?

Self-driving technology is unquestionably one of the biggest advancements in automotive technology in recent years. It’s been in development for quite some time and is gradually evolving as the years pass.

However, despite the steady evolution, there are already several obstacles affecting their implementation with consumer cars, and these issues are only compounded when applied to commercial vehicles like HGVs.

Right now, these issues are numerous, even when considered alongside existing vehicle safety products. This naturally gives rise to the question – will this technology ever be workable for HGVs?

How would self-driving HGVs work?

Self-driving HGVs are actually already being trialled on British roads and have been for quite some time – since the end of 2018.

Trials have included small ‘platoons’, or convoys of just three lorries. They’ll travel in formation, one after the other, with a human driver in control of the lead vehicle, which will dictate accelerating and braking of the entire convoy.

The lead vehicle will take the brunt of wind resistance, shielding the following HGVs from it. The idea is that this will reduce fuel consumptions and emissions for the convoy overall, with these platoons therefore presenting savings of between 4% and 10% for haulage companies. However, as we touched on above, there are significant questions about the rollout of this technology.

Important questions about self-driving HGVs

Although these platoons can present useful benefits to fleet managers and owners, critics of the technology have already posed some concerns, many of which are to do with the size and length of the convoy. These include:

Will the platoon block motorists from trying to enter or leave the motorway?

All drivers, whether they’re in control of their personal cars or work vehicles, have had the experience of tackling a difficult merge onto a motorway, negotiating the obstruction posed by a single HGV or commercial vehicle. The tight grouping and length of several HGVs, therefore, poses a difficulty for merging motorists in how to get onto the motorway without significant or sudden braking/acceleration.

lorries on motorway

Proponents of the technology say that this will have to be managed by the driver of the convoy, who will need to maintain a keen awareness of merging lanes when they’re on the inside lane of the motorway. They may also have the ability to split up the convoy slightly, increasing the distances between the HGVs to allow cars to merge.

What happens if a car tries to squeeze between the lorries?

Again, this will be left up to the discretion of the individual driver, who may choose to break up the convoy to allow cars to merge properly. Equally, motorists will need to ensure that the lead driver is fully aware of their presence before they attempt such a manoeuvre. In most cases, both motorists and convoy drivers would likely prefer that it’s attempted only as a last resort. Proponents of self-driving platoons are currently considering a myriad of other ways to inform motorists that a specific convoy is self-driving.

How will self-driving platoons manage in congested motorways and city conditions?

Self-driving technology is currently being trialled in a number of countries around the world, one of which is America. With its sprawling freeways and sparse cross-country roads, US motorists will likely have plenty of time to see oncoming signs before they’re temporarily blocked by the length of the convoy.

However here in the UK, the roads are narrower, and conditions are often much tighter, which raises the very likely prospect of self-driving convoys blocking important signs and announcements from the vision of other motorists, effectively decreasing the road awareness of those around them. Right now, there doesn’t appear to be a straightforward solution to this issue. The UK has some of the busiest motorways in Europe, with far more exits and entries than other countries, so it’s a problem that will likely pose an issue for quite some time yet.

What will be the human cost?

If the technology does succeed in reliably cutting costs for businesses, there remains the question of what then happens to the human drivers of HGVs. The new technology may indeed create jobs in terms of the manufacture, upkeep and maintenance of the technology, however there is some uncertainty in relation to the security of drivers’ jobs.

Once self-driving technology is rolled out on an industrial scale, there could be pushback against it from people working within the industry. It remains to be seen what the outcome of this will be.

Ethical questions – the biggest obstacle to self-driving HGVs

The most pressing issue is one that’s already plagued self-driving cars for quite some time, and the legal minefield that could arise from any accidents or collisions.

Currently, if a human driver hits and kills someone, in the vast majority of cases they will be prosecuted. However, cases involving self-driving vehicles aren’t nearly as straightforward. If someone is hit by a self-driving HGV, who is responsible? The owner of the vehicle, or the fleet manager? The software programmer? The software installer? Or the occupant of the HGV, even if they weren’t in direct control at the time? The current regulations (as they stand) say that a qualified person must remain in front of the wheel at all times so that they can take control if something goes wrong. But then what’s their level of responsibility in the event of a crash? Can they be expected to take the full weight of it?

This is complicated further by the weight and strength of HGVs, which means that collisions involving them are already consistently far more serious than those involving smaller cars. This means the potential for crashes with self-driving HGVs are, by default, far more devastating.

Programmers are already wrestling with the ethical questions of what happens in the case of unavoidable crashes. The human element of decision making is completely removed. Humans have a split second to make a decision, and AI technology is incapable of feeling and emotion is not used to make that decision.

At this stage, it’s impossible to provide definitive answers to most of these questions, given that the technology is still in its relative infancy. However, whatever the future holds, safety should always be the absolute top priority for fleet managers and owners, with human concerns placed far above cost savings or convenience.

Here at Vision Techniques, we certainly plan on upholding our own commitment to it, providing our customers with a huge range of vehicle safety products to maximise safety for their own fleet.

We have used automated technology for many years, such as in our very own reversing radar. The radar technology detects moving and stationary objects and warns the driver of an obstacle, should the driver be distracted the automated system applies the brakes bringing the vehicle to a safe and controlled stop. This type of technology has led us to be awarded the Highways England Chairman’s award for excellence in safety.

You can browse them right here on our site, or give our friendly sales team a call on 08548 058 213 – we’re here to help!