Thursday 5 June 2014

Autonomous Lorries may aid safety -but so would EHS enforcement

Self-driving cars are going to be as much a solution to cities' problems as e-cars. They still take up space, they still need parking and they still will be full of cylist-haters who will resent being held up by bicycles.

If there is a benefit, a self-driving car probably isn't going to squeeze past with 3 cm to spare. Probably. But at the same time, the car lobby will be telling stories about how wonderful it will be -and how the government just needs to spend a bit on infrastructure to help. As well as the millons already promised on charging bays, access to bus lanes is going to be the other one. No doubt they could code it up nicely, "reward early purchasers", and maybe even explain how it could be congestion aware, the auto-cars allowed into the lanes under central management when traffic is heavy and no buses due. But they will still treat cyclists as shit, still blame them for holding up e-cars, and pretend that they don't cause pollution or congestion.

It's also going to take a long time for any portion of "the private vehicle fleet" to go self-driving, until then the safety benefits will be low. We can get an estimate of the times by the resistance car manufacturers have shown to any mandatory "safety feature" (i.e. risk transference feature): ABS, airbags &c. The vendors wanted them to be premium so that they could charge lots of money for people who wanted it, and keep selling price low for people that didn't. Overall it kept the market big and the profits high. Mandatory safety features hurt sales at the bottom and profits at the top. Bear that in mind when someone praises self-driving features like volvos that look ahead: its a premium feature because they can bill some people from it, even though lives are a lot more likely to be saved if all vehicles had it.

The other example: the eight year delay on rolling out truck safety features in the EU. This is a major setback -lives will be lost at the expense of profit. But it represents an opportunity

Rather than wait eight years for the safety features proposed today -we should say: in exchange for the delay, we want integrated autonomous safety features too.

HGVs do a lot of miles. Banning them from cities at peak hours is the fix that will save the most lives without hoping for any EU legislation to deliver changes on the streets. But even after a ban, they still nearly hit people on roundabouts, squeeze past cyclists on A-roads, run people over "I mistook him for a bollard" , "I didn't expect a cyclist to be there", etc. As HGV drivers work long hours -and regularly fake their log books- fatigue is an issue.

Making HGVs safer would save more cyclists lives than making all private cars autonomous. As about 50% of the causes of cyclist death, improvements there have the best return on investment. So what could we do with autonomous HGVs that would save lives

  1. Speed limiting co-ordinated with area speeds. 40 mph road: 40 mph maximum speed. No doubt the HGV transport companies will complain about this, but they are really arguing for the right to break the law.
  2. Enforcement of no-HGV signage. If the signs say "no", the trucks shouldn't go.
  3. Safe distance maintenance. That's motorways as well as normal roads. the HGVs can keep the stopping distance in front of them, and as they speed up, back off more. This is what drivers are meant to do, but never do: the more "professional" they get, the more aggressively they drive.
  4. Automated pedestrian and cyclist detection: if its in Volvo cars, it can go into Volvo trucks.
  5. Collaborative convoys. M-way convoying could be partially automated. Maybe it could be fully done to the extent that the drivers could sleep. There's risks there, but if it downgrades hours on the M5 to rest hours, they may be more alert in town.

    Are these unrealistic? No. Google cars can do 1-4 already. What do you think they can do in five years? In eight? If the EU is delaying safe trucks by eight years, we should go back and say "fine, we want the safety features a modern car will have in 2022, not features proposed for HGVs in 2014".

    And until then? Given how many truck drivers don't even seem to have hands free phone kit, truck companies need to care. That means Healthy and Safety legislation has to apply to trucks. Why aren't lorry companies fined if their drivers are caught texting while driving? Why, given automatic GPS tracking of trucks in become common, aren't speed limit violations being auto-reported to the police? HGV shipping companies -and worse, tipper truck companies- have built business models about dodging laws whenever they can. EHS enforcement could get them to care. And once that happens, maybe they'll actually want autonomous HGVs before the EU tells them to.

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