The Future of Driverless Cars

Google self driving car

After six years of experimental driving and logging six million miles, sans human, Google has begun issuing monthly reports on its self-driving cars. The first report, issued in May 2015, offers some interesting insights into the autonomous vehicle technology which is on the verge of migrating from below the radar into mainstream awareness.

The report provides a first preview of the yet-to-be-concluded answer to one of the commonly feared human questions: Do you trust the robot cars enough to let them roam free in our streets? (as if getting rear-ended by a human driver who is texting while driving is easier to accept)

Here are some highlights:

  • 1.8 million miles of autonomous (over a million) and manual (800,000) driving logged to date.
  • The robo cars now average about 1,000 miles per week on public streets.
  • They were involved in 12 minor accidents over the past six years.
  • The punch line: not once was the self driving car the cause of the accidents. Sorry folks, you are the weakest link.
  • In a vast majority of the cases, the Google car was rear-ended by another vehicle.

 view from a Google self-driving carGoogle car’s view of the street and interacting objects

Although the engineers at Google have been honing their skills on how to handover control of the steering wheel from the computer to the human driver in the event of an emergency, their next push is to eliminate the human driver altogether. In doing so, there also goes the steering wheel, brake pedal, gas pedal and gear shift. In their place, you get two fat buttons – to start and stop the car.

Google is not alone in the robo car space. Established players like Mercedes, BMW and Volvo are introducing their prototype versions of vehicles offering varying degrees of driving automation. While it is debatable how soon it will be before driverless vehicles will be let loose, the self-driving technology trend is well established and will hit the road near you much sooner than you care to think that human drivers can never be replaced.

Automated Giant Trucks

 driverless mining truckDriverless truck in a Pilbara mine of Western Australia (image: ABC news)


Debating whether the self driving technology will ever hit ‘mainstream’ depends on what ‘mainstream’ means.

For those whose context reference is the mining industry, the future has already arrived. A couple of years ago, in fact.

If the interactions within an urban street environment is so overwhelmingly complex for the technology to ever replace the human involved, as commonly cited by doubters, then it is only logical that this technology first goes prime time in the mining industry where it gets to play in an ideal sandbox, an operating environment – literally a hole in the ground – with no complex interactions arising from misbehaving drivers and unexpected pedestrians.

Meet Rio Tinto’s Yandicoogina mine. Located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, this remote open pit iron ore mine has been the home where dozens of giant 210 tonne trucks roam free, minus the drivers. Equipped with GPS and other onboard sensors and controlled from a remote location in Perth, these autonomous monster trucks made by Komatsu follow their pre-programmed routes between loading and dumping sites. By taking over the mundane and sometimes dangerous jobs, these self-driving trucks also eliminate the need for human drivers who need to be flown in and out of the remote, hot, dry and generally unpleasant environment, in the process also removing a major cost element from the company’s operating expenses.

The operation is such a success that Rio Tinto plans to bring into service 150 such trucks in the next few years. Other mining majors in the area, BHP Billiton and Fortescue Metals Group, have similar automation plans in the works.

Another human unfriendly location which will see the introduction of driverless trucks is Fort McMurray, home to Canada’s expansive oil sand extractive operations. Suncore, Canada’s largest oil company, is also working with Komatsu to bring in self-driving giant haulers to its oil sand patches. A fleet of 175 driverless trucks will be purchased from the Japanese manufacturer and introduced into operation over the next several years with a plan by the company to fully replace its fleet of heavy haulers with GPS-equipped self-driving trucks capable of operating 24/7 ‘by the end of the decade’, according to the Calgary Herald. At an average salary of about $200,000 a person, the substitution of humans by machines represents a significant cost savings for the company, or has the effect of making redundant about 1000 truck drivers currently working at the Suncore mines, depending on your perspective.

Long Haul Robo Trucks

 Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025Mercedes-Benz self driving long haul truck

Closer to home, if the thought of a Google self-driving two-seater pulling over to pick you up seems a bit farfetched, perhaps the sight of a fleet of tractor trailers traveling down the highway – minus the truck drivers – would be a lot closer to reality than you think.

The Future Truck 2025 recently unveiled by Mercedes-Benz provides a glimpse of what a future robo truck would look like. Aimed to be commercially deployed in 2025, the self-driving prototype truck is equipped with a Highway Pilot system which communicates with the array of cameras and sensors surrounding the truck, enabling it to maintain lane positions and navigate itself. Instead of driving the truck, the operator becomes a ‘transport manager’. He gets the truck onto the highway and merges into traffic. At 80 km/h, the driver is prompted to relinquish control of the vehicle, at which point the system completely takes over. As technology improves, it is entirely conceivable that the autonomous navigation system can operate fully without the even the ‘transport manager’.

The motivation to remove that last trace of human element is strong indeed. Besides the increasing difficulty in finding qualified and willing long haul truck drivers for the typical gruelingly long and monotonous journeys among constantly tightening regulations restricting how long drivers can legally stay on the road between mandatory rests, at $40,000 to $80,000 a year, drivers are easily the most significant cost component the trucking industry is eager to trim. Never mind the 330,000 accidents involving large trucks killing 4,000 people in 2012 alone, the vast majority of which were the results of human errors (mostly non-commercial drivers, mind you). Put in place an automated system which never gets angry or distracted, requires no sleep, stays focused at all times and does not go on strike, you get a system which is, ironically, even safer.

Some might ridicule the idea of a driverless truck, citing all kinds of situations which are too complex for anything but humans to handle, including such routines as getting a truck to navigate the urban environment with unpredictable drivers, cyclists and pedestrians, getting the truck to dock and signing for drop-offs and pickups.

They might be right. The problems associated with the ‘last mile’ are indeed daunting. But the problem can be solved by breaking up the journey into two segments – the long expressway and the last mile at both ends. As articulated by Mish,  trucking hubs can be established near expressways. A human can drive a loaded truck to the hub and leaves it there. The robo truck then gets itself onto the expressway way, takes the long and boring journey and eventually exits into the hub off of the expressway near the destination. From there a human takes over and navigate the last mile.

Although in this scheme humans are still involved – driving a loaded truck to a hub and taking a loaded truck from a hub to an urban last mile destination – the vast majority of the trip can be automated, along with the elimination of the cost component associated with the human drivers.

Needless to say, the advent of robo trucks does nothing to enhance the career prospects of the roughly three million full-time truck drivers in the US alone. Such is the inevitable consequence of technological advance. By doing things and making gadgets cheaper, faster and more efficiently, such advances often eliminate the human element from the process.

One would argue that automation frees up humans from the mundane work so they can move on to other functions higher in the value chain. True enough. After all, the world did not choke on the army of unemployed workers when the horse and buggy industry gave way to automobile. The challenge, however, is how to minimize the disruptions caused to the displaced workers during the transition period.


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