This article will either give you serious cause for concern, or enlighten you on the future of freight transport: an industry, like it or not, that is very close to our town given the proximity of Felixstowe Port and the A14.
The technical revolution that is about to hit the motor transport industry is possibly on a par with the coming of the railways in the early nineteenth century, particularly in terms of the cost of moving goods. A revolution that will increase the number of trucks on the road whilst significantly reducing the number of drivers.
The advances in automation for driverless vehicles and the technology to manage the scenario is here now. As I write, driverless cars are being 'driven' in California (Google's Self-Driving Car) and convoys of trucks are moving across Spain: road trains with a driver only in the lead vehicle. The European Commission's SARTRE (Safe Road Trains for the Environment) is financing the experiment.
Both Scania and Komatsu have automated diggers in the quarries of Australia, loading driverless dump trucks hauling iron ore and coal to the surface. OK, these guys are in a people-less environment and any damage they do will be to themselves, not to passing pedestrians but the A14 is close to becoming a people-less environment. These trucks are not making mistakes; the on-board computers have multiple detection devices to keep the trucks on the haul road, and their AEBS (Advance Emergency Braking System) will become mandatory for all new trucks in Europe from 2018.
The European Commission has just announced a £4.5 million project which will be led by Scania to develop SARTRE and explore what changes to legislation will be required to allow road trains on to our highways.
Initially the concept is simple; one truck with a driver is followed very closely by four or five others, all driverless but all taking their instruction by wireless communication, from the lead vehicle. Additionally, each truck will have its own censors - similar to the reversing beepers on modern cars - with white line detectors and micro satellite navigation. The trucks can be a couple of metres apart, all travelling at a steady 90 kph to save fuel. They take up considerably less road space than a conventional fleet, use significantly less fuel and are economical, having one driver instead of several.
Because each of the trucks will be fitted with AEBS, when the lead truck slows all of the others in the convoy follow, instantly. Each maintains the set distance to the truck in front, but here's the clever bit. Because our convoy is following a similar convoy a short distance ahead, when the lead convoy is held by congestion our convoy slows to save fuel, allowing the queue to clear.
This type of technological advance needs public support and needs to offer a safer system than we have at present. I predict, therefore, that it is likely to be in use on the A14 between Felixstowe Port and say Alconbury (Freight Depot) before moving to local distributor roads.
The only stumbling block is legislation. Article 8 of the Vienna Convention states that "every driver shall at all times be able to control his vehicle or guide his animals". The real issue is not how long before we have these road trains with one driver for five vehicles, but how long will it be before we have no drivers at all?