Public fear will be one of the biggest barriers to adoption of self-driving vehicles despite the continuous advancements being made to autonomous technology.

Volvo Group Chief Technology Officer Lars Stenqvist. (Photo: Volvo)

The public and legislators will be “relatively big hurdles” for true acceptance of the technology that will put driverless big rigs on the roads, according to Lars Stenqvist, chief technology officer for Volvo Group.

The key to overcoming the fear and skepticism is education, demonstration and incremental adoption of self-driving features, Stenqvist said.

Manufacturers will not only be charged with developing the technology, they’ll be responsible for convincing the public that autonomous trucks can safely operate in real-world conditions on public roads, he said.

Three out of four U.S. drivers say they would be “afraid” to ride in a self-driving vehicle, and only one in five says they would fully trust such a vehicle to drive itself, according to a survey from the American Automobile Association.

But the public has already learned to accept some levels of autonomy.

The Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, uses a classification system of six different levels of vehicle autonomy based on the amount of necessary driver intervention. Level one requires a driver to be in control at all times but allows for automated acceleration and braking in some situations, such as for cruise control or emergency stops.

Simply put, the levels increase from “no feet,” to “no hands, no eyes, no head” and then “no driver,” according to Stenqvist.

The first level of using “no feet” has been in practice for decades with cruise control. Level two incorporates automated steering systems to guide the vehicle while the driver controls other aspects.

Newer big rigs also include these levels of automation. Volvo's just-launched VNL series of trucks come with a number of advanced driver assistive systems, or ADAS features, such as automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control and lane departure warning.

At level three, the vehicle monitors its environment and operates without the driver having to constantly look at the road. Level four adds critical decision making, enabling the vehicle to respond to situations without human intervention. At level five, the vehicle operates fully without a human and doesn’t require a steering wheel, foot pedals or any manual controls.

“We are working on all these levels, and we are convinced that, for a long period of time, customers will ask for automation on the different levels, depending on its application,” Stenqvist said.

Show and Tell

Innovators are successfully testing self-driving trucks in limited uses, but the technology is “far from being demonstrably ready” over a wide range of driving conditions, said Bryant Walker Smith, assistant law professor at the University of South Carolina and a member of the U.S. Department of Transportation's Advisory Committee on Automation in Transportation.

“These companies need to earn public trust through careful explanations, candid acknowledgements and visible successes,” Smith said.

Volvo has been testing a self-driving FMX truck nearly a mile below ground in an ore mine in Sweden since September 2016. The truck travels a 7-kilometer route through narrow mine tunnels shuttling ore between the loading area and the crusher.

In the worst-case scenario, the truck smashes into a wall.

“This type of environment is where we will start seeing fully autonomous commercial vehicles,” Stenqvist said.

Other applications in confined areas could include quarries, construction sites and ports. Such applications could not only offer proof of concept and prompt wider adoption in industry, but also ease the public into acceptance of the technology, he said.

Low-risk applications are a better starting point compared with highways, which are “far into the future and not where we're starting,” Stenqvist said.

Volvo demonstrated its self-driving refuse vehicle at its Innovation Summit in Brussels and London. The truck is pre-programmed to drive itself from one bin to the next while the driver walks ahead. Sensors continually monitor the vehicle's vicinity and force the truck to stop when an obstacle appears in its path.

Gear changing, steering and speed are constantly optimized to reduce fuel consumption and emissions, Stenqvist said.

“When I show this refuse truck driving 5 kilometers per hour down the road in their suburban area, [onlookers are] OK” he said.

Autonomy a Tool to Improve Safety

Automation must also be used as a tool to improve safety, Stenqvist said.

New technologies can help save lives, said Deborah Hersman, chief executive of the National Safety Council, in her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on Sept. 13.

Hersman referenced research conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that found 94 percent of all investigated crashes  attributable to human errors such as alcohol consumption, speed, fatigue or distraction.

Automation in aviation technology has improved safety in the airline industry. Autopilot features enable pilots to focus more on monitoring larger systems and ensuring flight safety, she said.

Many accidents in large trucks could be mitigated or prevented with collision avoidance technologies, but just 10 percent of semis have advanced safety technology, Hersman said.

Safety is also a strong selling point for consumers. In its survey, AAA also found more than 60 percent of car buyers wanted at least one autonomous feature in their vehicle, such as adaptive cruise control, self-parking technology, lane keeping assist or automotive emergency braking.

More than 80 percent of those who selected such features cited safety as the primary reason.

One of the biggest challenges in moving through the levels of autonomy is identifying the improvements needed to make the human-machine interactions successful, Hersman said.

The most dangerous environment will be when the human and machine are both involved in decision making, Hersman said. “The greatest risks are not when one or the other has sole responsibility for the vehicle, but when the control is shared.”

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