With the advent of self-driving cars looming ever closer, it is only a matter of time before deliveries are handled by automated vehicles instead of professional human drivers. Letting artificial intelligence drive small cars is one thing, but with heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) involved in more road accidents than any other vehicle type, can we trust self-driving trucks to deliver heavy items?
How will automation change delivery?
Already, home delivery giants such as Amazon have gravitated towards machines for the development of their models, with drone delivery consistently making headlines since it was first announced. The retailer claimed its first successful drone delivery in December, saying it was a “fully autonomous flight” with “no human pilot involved”.
Though postmen are unlikely to lose their jobs to drones anytime soon, truck drivers may be far more vulnerable. The Guardian estimates that driverless trucks are likely to be rolled out on a large scale sooner than their smaller counterparts.
With 3.5 million truck driving humans employed in the USA alone, there will be some resistance from drivers who want to keep their jobs. But despite this, it seems likely that the companies behind the deliveries will want to move to an automation-based model as soon as they can for its cost-effectiveness and efficiency.
While fears over the potential dangers of self-driving cars have consistently been abated by experts and studies (with one going so far as to call them “ridiculously safe”), there could be a wholly different story when it comes to larger delivery vehicles, the kind which, if things continue to pan out as they are, will eventually be self-driven.
Why could self-driving HGVs be dangerous?
No matter which statistics you find, HGVs appear to be some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road. More than half of bicycle accidents in London involve HGVs. 41% of fatal road accidents in the UK involve HGVs, even though HGVs make up just 12% of vehicles on the road.
Currently, the best defence we have against the dangers of HGVs is training reliable and experienced truck drivers with safety advice to avoid accidents. Those wishing to transport heavy items privately have been able to rely on firms like AnyVan that provide experienced drivers who are experts in heavy item delivery. But if experience and training are such prized traits for those seeking delivery, what happens when we hand over the wheel to an artificial intelligence running on a computer algorithm that is incapable of traditional learning as we know it?
The result could be scary. Figuring out a sort of ‘moral compass’ for AI driving machines has been one of the key areas in self-driving car development ever since removing human drivers became a possibility.
One research team at MIT set up what they call the “Moral Machine” which tasks the public with deciding what dysfunctional self-driving cars should do in certain life or death situations. The questions are tough, and it seems there are no easy answers.
Could there be an upside to self-driving trucks and delivery?
Through all this doom and gloom, there are in fact potential benefits that self-driving HGVs could bring. One Forbes contributor estimates that the traditional role of the truck driver will be obsolete by 2025, but that it will be replaced by something slightly different.
With artificial intelligence handling the bulk of the driving, an onboard human could take on more of a ‘vehicle manager’-type role, overseeing the routes, the delivery process, the rest of the fleet, or even the plans for deliveries the next day or week. And, perhaps most importantly in terms of safety, these on-board managers would be able to take the wheel should any kind of vehicle malfunction take place.
With implementation like this, we could trust self-driving trucks to deliver heavy items at least as much as we trust them at present.