It's only a matter of time before an autonomous truck makes its debut on Australian roads. Trials are already being run by large transport firms and manufacturers in Europe and the US, with considerable success.
Australia’s freight network is growing, with demand for road and rail freight expected to more than double1 between 2010 and 2040, while the social and economic costs of traffic congestion2 are estimated to reach around $30 billion a year by 2030.
Kings Transport and Logistics CEO, Tony Mellick, expects that autonomous trucks will become the norm rather than the exception, particularly for single pickup and delivery runs.
“I think the application in long-distance movement of freight by autonomous trucks is sound,” Mellick says. “Having the ability to send out 200 tonnes of freight rather than 20-34 tonnes by platooning three or more trucks, is a cost–effective way of moving freight.
“It’s safer because it removes fatigue from the risk matrix and, given the constraints of the current labour market, would be a welcome solution for most long-distance service providers.”
When will autonomous vehicles be introduced locally?
Mellick says that while new vehicle technologies are certainly heading in the direction of connected autonomy, it is less clear how soon Australia will have the infrastructure to support driverless trucks on our highways.
“All this is reliant on investment by governments to build the infrastructure into the highways and roads to facilitate it. My understanding is that for autonomous trucks to be viable, there need to be sensors, monitors and technology embedded along the road to keep the truck from straying out of the lanes, for instance.
“Apart from Eastlink in Melbourne, I’m not aware of any infrastructure enabling the commercialisation of autonomous trucks in Australia.”
Felix Ohle, General Manager Logistics at Viva Energy, believes Australia will start to see semi-autonomous trucks within 15 years.
“Over the past decade we have seen an increasing number of applications of autonomous technology especially in the mining sector. While this takes place in a controlled environment it demonstrates the viability of the technology. In North America and Europe autonomous trucks are being tested in uncontrolled environments and I think it’s just a matter of time before other commercial applications become a viable reality.
“Autonomous trucks may not be suitable everywhere around the country and we will have to work out where this technology can add the greatest benefit to a growing transport industry,” he says.
Australian testing is already underway. In November 2015, South Australia hosted the first driverless vehicle trial on an Australian public road. Victoria's 30-year infrastructure strategy includes testing of freight vehicle platooning, where technology links trucks travelling in close proximity, requiring fewer drivers.
What is the future for autonomous trucks at Viva Energy?
Over the past few years, Viva Energy has introduced many innovative technologies to improve the efficiency and reliability of its vehicles. The organisation now requires all its transport partners’ vehicles to be equipped with In-Vehicle Monitoring Systems (IVMS), fatigue management systems and driver cameras.
The business has also invested in state-of-the-art systems that help harness available data to drive efficiency in the distribution of products.
The team introduced Performance Based Standards (PBS) vehicles to reduce the number of heavy trucks moving dangerous goods and improve payloads – the amount vehicles can carry.
Viva Energy’s move into autonomous vehicles is still a while off, due to the human element still needed in its delivery processes, but Ohle says the organisation is following the development of autonomous vehicles with excitement.
“Ultimately these developments are based around data becoming more accessible, so the future challenge will be based around harnessing and using all that data to our advantage.
"Safety, reliability and efficiency are core to Viva Energy's supply chain and logistics businesses, so autonomous vehicles offer us the opportunity to revisit how we best serve our customers in the future."
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