Updated: Jan 14, 2021
One of the many responses to COVID-19 has been the rise of webinars in place of conferences and seminars. Laptop and desktop cameras have become the assembly facilitators of our time, and certainly added a new dimension to reporting on events.
Coretext writers have all become webinar aficionados over the past year, ‘attending’ numerous online events hosted around the world.
One of the more fascinating series to cover has delved into the transport revolution happening around us right now. Hosted by the University of Melbourne’s Peter Sweatman, Enterprise Professor in Transport Technologies, the Michigan Australian Exchange in Mobility (MAX) webinars have drawn together US and Australian specialists in intelligent vehicle and automation technologies.
Here, as an example, is a recent episode looking at technologies entering the trucking industry.
Commercial trucking on a patient route to automation
Technology that assists drivers, rather than replaces them, is the most likely heavy vehicle scenario on public roads for at least another decade. This was the shared view of specialist presenters from the road freight and heavy vehicle sector joining a recent Michigan Australian Exchange in Mobility (MAX) webinar.
In MAX Series Episode 4, ‘Moving Freight with Intelligent Vehicle Systems’, Mike Lenné from the Australian automotive technology company, Seeing Machines, put the case that ‘driving support’ rather than ‘automated driving’ was the most likely area of technology and product development for the foreseeable future.
As general manager of Seeing Machines’ fleet business and head of its Human Factors division, he says driver monitoring technology designed to manage fatigue or attentiveness is already being rolled out. He expects it will be commonplace in heavy vehicle fleets within the next few years. This is predominantly camera technology assessing facial indicators such as pupil size, eyelid movement, and head orientation.
Mike Lenné says the impetus for such driver assistance technologies is the significant gains to be made in safety, efficiency, and convenience. “This type of fatigue detection technology also provides fleet operators with improved scheduling flexibility,” he says.
“But for intelligent vehicles technology to be introduced sooner rather than later, it's going to have to be a collaboration between the driver and the vehicle. It's not about replacing the driver.”
He points out that even if sensor infrastructure was installed into arterial roads to facilitate more automation, drivers will still be needed at the start and end of trips to operate vehicles in complex urban environments.
Mike Lenné was supported in this view by Executive Director of the Michigan Defense Center (MDC), Vicki Selva, who says a major issue that needs to be resolved is “how to foresee the unforeseeable” in a public roads system shared by drivers with the potential for erratic or random behaviour. For full automation, she agrees commercial trucking will need, at least for the time being, to be separated from regular vehicles.
However, Vicki Selva works mostly with the US Army, which she says is less constrained by this consideration and has the lives of its personnel as its prime focus.
“During the Iraq war and in Afghanistan, one of the most dangerous positions was that of a convoy driver. So for the Army, autonomous vehicle technologies are direct lifesavers and that’s why there is such a focus on getting these technologies into their vehicles.”
To this end, the US Army is working much more closely with civilian developers than in the past, breaking with its tradition against the use of commercial off the shelf parts and technologies. This is partly to reduce costs and partly to speed up the transition to autonomous vehicles.
Vicki Selva says there is a close working relationship between civilian and defense researchers, particularly through the MDC. Both the US Army’s Ground Vehicle System Centre (GVSC) and its next generation combat vehicle team are based in Michigan specifically to draw on the expertise and manufacturing capabilities of the commercial automobile industry. She notes that the Australian Department of Defence has a project agreement with the GVSC looking at autonomous vehicle systems.
Vicki Selva says the US Army has made considerable progress and has run several autonomous vehicle exercises on public highways, including a fully autonomous crossing of the Bluewater Bridge linking Michigan with Ontario, Canada.
This was a technically significant test to measure the effect of the bridge’s metal superstructure on the vehicle’s sensors.
“There were folks in the vehicles but they were told not to touch the steering or brakes. It was a little hair raising for them being two hundred feet up off the water, but it all worked beautifully.”
Because of the Army’s determination to develop autonomous systems for its heavy haulage vehicles as well as war-fighting machines vehicles, Vicki Selva sees close synergies with the commercial freight sector and its development of intelligent vehicle systems. “The microwave came from an army project and went into commercial use, and that maybe is how autonomous trucking will happen as well,” she says.
For more in this MAX webinar series see: