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What could self-driving lorries mean for businesses?

At a glance

  • Autonomous and semi-autonomous trucks could bring wide-ranging benefits to large fleet operators, particularly in relation to safety and efficiency
  • However, beyond the question of if and when lorries will be allowed on our roads without a driver, there remain a number of other potential barriers to adoption
  • These could include uncertainty around liability in the event of an accident, regulatory harmonisation across national borders, and potential cyber concerns

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Driverless vehicles are evolving rapidly, and while self-driving passenger cars tend to dominate the news agenda, lorry manufacturers have been developing and trialling similar technologies.

Trials of driverless trucks on public roads have already taken place in the USA and parts of Europe.

But what are the key benefits of autonomous trucks, and what challenges must be overcome before they are widely adopted?

What the law says about driverless vehicles

One of the key barriers to the widespread adoption of self-driving vehicles is the complexities surrounding liability. While the Government wants to have fully autonomous cars on UK roads by 2021, the law is still catching up with advances in technology.

The Automated and Electric Vehicles Act, which became law last year, introduces a new civil liability framework for accidents caused by autonomous vehicles. However, the Law Commission says grey areas remain, and it is conducting a three-year review to prepare driving laws for self-driving vehicles.

In its recent consultation paper on automated vehicles, the Law Commission gave the example of an automated vehicle swerving to avoid an erratic cyclist and hitting a parked car, and questioned where liability would lie.

Varying levels of automation

Regardless of the legal picture, the arrival of autonomous trucks on UK roads is likely to be gradual – deployed in a series of steps and technical iterations.

The Society of Automotive Engineers has established a set of guidelines to describe the differing levels of autonomy in driverless vehicles, ranging from 0 (no automation) to 5 (full automation).

Levels 1 and 2, which cover one or more driver assistance systems (acceleration/deceleration, for example) are already fairly common on UK roads. However, we are still a long way from level 5, which envisages full driving automation without the need for any human driver intervention.

The next major change is likely to come with the commercial rollout of level 3 vehicles built with ‘conditional automation’ – where all aspects of driving are automated, but a human driver is still required to sit in the cab and respond appropriately to a request to intervene.

What autonomous fleets could mean for businesses

Perhaps the greatest potential benefit of autonomous trucks is in reducing accidents. According to the Department for Transport, nearly two-thirds (64%) of fatalities in reported road accidents are at least partly the result of driver error.

Autonomous trucks could also offer significant operational efficiencies for large fleet owners. These range from fuel efficiencies delivered by trucks drafting in tight formation (known as platooning), to dynamic route optimisation for deliveries, or even a reduction or removal of enforced driver breaks.

How will the risks of autonomous trucks be managed?

While the benefits of autonomous trucks could be significant, there are also a number of risks and challenges.

Should an autonomous truck be involved in an accident, the cost of repairs is likely to be higher, given the amount of sophisticated sensors and other gadgetry that will be on board the cab and trailer.

With trucks becoming increasingly digitised, cyber risk must also be considered. Chinese hackers have already demonstrated that they could trick Tesla’s self-driving software to swerve vehicles into oncoming traffic.

Before introducing autonomous lorries, businesses will need to consider a number of potential cyber scenarios, ranging from malfunctions or attacks making vehicles inoperable, to third-parties seizing control of a vehicle remotely.

Fleet operators will also have to contend with a number of logistical challenges, ranging from regulatory and infrastructure harmonisation between countries – which is required for autonomous trucks to pass seamlessly through borders – to heavy investment in modernising or updating existing trailers to work with autonomous vehicles.

Looking to the future

While there are a number of barriers to clear before driverless lorries can become a regular feature on our roads, it is important that any business considering an autonomous fleet understands the potential risks as well as the rewards.

For more information on the issues discussed in this article, please get in touch with your local Zurich contact.

Image © Getty

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