In some ways the most exciting area of goods vehicle automation is not this year’s trial of lorry platooning, or even distant prospect of full automation, but rather technological driver aides. A first generation of Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB) is in use now on new trucks, and upgrades to this over the years ahead will mean it will become far less likely that HGVs will have incidents with other vehicles or vulnerable road users.
As regards full automation, the first stage we can expect for vans and HGVs is for the vehicles to be allowed in use, but only with a “driver” still in place. When these have reached the stage of demonstrating a near-perfect safety record, we would then move on from there. It is ‘trunking’ where we might see them in use first: Motorways represent a more ‘closed’ system, where the absence of cyclists and pedestrians may make the technological, regulatory and practical barriers easier to overcome. Towns and cities may prove more complicated.
When could this happen? A central case could be that we might see trials of theoretically driverless goods vehicles on public roads five years from now. It would then be ten years plus from now that autonomous vehicles would start to be used on a commercial basis – and this could easily be 20 years. Depending on the business model adopted we could see mass take up rapidly from then on. When this happens, delivery patterns might change to overnight movements with automated drop-offs – requiring a change in the layouts of high streets and working areas.
Electrification will come much sooner than full automation.
Electric vans are on sale today but are too expensive and have yet to convince operators regarding capacity, capability and longevity. But we may be near a point at which costs reduce and (following recent Government regulatory reform) the vehicles can carry more. Range extends all the time as batteries improve.
In around five years we would expect electric vans and smaller HGVs (probably up to 7.5 tonnes) to move to a point where they start to become a viable everyday option for operators – but it will take far longer for this to be true for smaller companies who rely on second hand vehicles. However, for even this to be true a further hurdle has to be overcome: electricity supply to depots. Today FTA members often have to pay for upgrades to the supply to their yards, as well as the charging points in them. This is not viable for most companies. It would be a key area for local councils to intervene if they wish to see early uptake of electric goods vehicles on their roads.
Despite some test models and much PR, 100% electrification will not be possible any time soon for larger goods vehicles. But possibilities exist for them to become hybrid electric where they could run in zero emission mode in city centres.
The carbon benefits of electrification are real but not exponential until the electric supply is decarbonised. But clearly the air quality gains could be very significant.