Are driverless trucks coming to Brisbane?

Are you ready for a trucking industry revolution?

The biggest shake-up in Brisbane’s trucking industry for decades appears to be on its way. Driverless trucks are a topic on which everyone has an opinion.

Some say they’re dangerous, and that they could be prone to accidental damage caused by fallen eucalyptus trees and wayward kangaroos. Others say they simply won’t work in Queensland’s outback, where tech support will be difficult and costly to find.

Supporters say they will save billions of dollars in costs, and that they will eliminate the shortcomings of tired drivers making fatal mistakes.

Despite America being ahead in the race to pass laws and test driverless trucks on the roads, they could become the norm here in Queensland first. In fact, they’re already proving to be a hit in some parts of Australia.

America is racing to be the first country to have driverless trucks…

In America, they are gearing up for driverless trucks on the highways. Congress looks set to pass laws that will push the Department of Transportation to draft regulations for self-driving cars next year. Lawmakers acknowledge that self-driving technology is going to disrupt the way people travel.

However, getting the laws that exempt autonomous vehicles (as they are also known) from some safety requirements written and passed through the system could take years, especially while overhauling industry safety standards. Even so, 20 U.S. states have passed their self-driving car regulations already.

In preparation for nationwide laws to come into force, Daimler has already been licensed to test self-driving trucks on U.S. highways.

Daimler has said that driverless trucks are a decade away from becoming a reality, despite predicted safety and efficiency benefits. But this isn’t because the technology needs to be developed. It’s already there. The hold up in America is because of the legal issues highlighted above.

Australia doesn’t have any laws governing driverless trucks as yet. So, it would appear that we’re behind the game. However, the reality is that driverless trucks in Queensland and other Australian states could be closer than we think.

…Yet self-driving trucks are already working in Australia…

The debate about self-driving trucks is probably making Rio Tinto executives chuckle. They’ve been using them in Australia for almost a decade. And not just any old trucks. Huge great 400-ton beasts, in the harsh conditions of quarries and mines in Western Australia.

Rio has dozens of these driverless trucks working 24 hours each day, hauling iron ore across four job sites. They drive themselves using a combination of GPS, radar, and laser sensors. A team supervises the job they are doing from more than 700 miles away. It’s proving a safer and cheaper way of operating, though if something does go wrong, human help (such as emergency servicing, mechanics, and tyre changes) is a long way away.

…And self-driving trucks could transform Australia’s deadliest industry…

Truck drivers on Australia’s roads are 15 times more likely to die than workers in other industries. Even the Australian Trucking Association has said that self-driving trucks could make the industry safer. And with road freight set to nearly double between 2010 and 2030, there aren’t enough drivers to meet demand.

Geoff Crouch, the chairman of the Australian Trucking Association, believes that self-driving trucks are the future of the industry, but that it won’t be an overnight transition. He believes that the transition will begin with autonomous braking technology as standard in all vehicles before progressing from there.

This said, ‘platooning’ – a convey of autonomous trucks travelling within feet of each other – is being tested in Western Australia this year. The lead truck ‘talks’ to those following, warning of obstacles and road conditions and synchronising speed and braking. By driving so close together, it is estimated that fuel costs can be slashed by as much as 20%.

Of course, truck drivers don’t only drive. They perform other essential tasks, such as loading and unloading, vehicle checks, and customer liaison.

Perhaps this gives a clue as to how driverless truck convoys could work in the future:

  • First stop is for the truck’s technology to remove increasing responsibilities from the driver: the need to brake, plan routes, steer, etc.
  • Once this technology is embedded, then platooning could happen with the lead vehicle manned, and other vehicles driverless.
  • The lead driver will control the fleet, monitoring performance and problems. He or she will oversee loading and unloading, and all the other tasks required of drivers today.
  • Eventually, as other functions become automated, platoons of wholly driverless trucks will become commonplace on the roads of Queensland and Australia. These convoys will be controlled by human intervention hundreds of miles away.

The only question remaining is how mechanical issues are dealt with. That may not change much from today, with services like Darra Tyres’ 24/7 truck call out service dealing with a truck’s tyre problems local to Brisbane. The difference here, of course, is that instead of speaking to the driver, the technician will be speaking to a controller who may not even be on the same continent. Interesting times ahead, we think.

To find out about our comprehensive services for truck owners and fleets, in demand today and prepared for tomorrow, contact Darra Tyres. Never be stranded on roads in and around Brisbane again.

Keeping your business and fleet safely on the road,

Kevin Wood

About the Author

Kevin has been at the forefront of the tyre industry for over 20 years. Kevin's speciality is in industrial and commercial tyres including the management and upkeep of fleets. Kevin has worked with vehicles his whole career from painting, mechanical, suspension and panel beating he has also spent time in the Australia Army as a driver. He has driven all size of vehicles throughout his career so understands the demands placed on drivers.