Why ‘platooning’ is a bad thing
I’m a truck driver and for the most part I enjoy my job. I get to see different parts of the country every day and much of what I see apart from roads (and industrial parks, service stations etc) consists of green fields, hills and valleys and pretty villages and small towns. Most of the jobs I do are low-pressure, varied, not banal and do not require me to be in close proximity to others (strangers) for long periods in the day. It can be tedious, motorway driving especially, but I can listen to the radio or stock up on podcasts and audio-books to listen to on the way. A lot of driving jobs, however, consist of the same trip every day, often from a pallet freight depot somewhere to a ‘hub’ somewhere in the Midlands in the evening and returning in the early morning. Every night the motorways are filled with these lorries, mostly ‘double-deckers’ about 16 feet high, usually about three of them from each of about five companies in each postcode area. In the USA, they are already testing a system they call ‘platooning’, or running three trucks together with only one ‘active’ driver, the others controlled by computers connected to the truck at the front, and tests of these set-ups are shortly to take place here. I think this is a bad idea.
To begin with, the ‘platoons’ do not consist of entirely driverless trucks; there will be a driver in all of them, but only the front driver is actually driving all the time. When the truck is on a long stretch of motorway in which nothing is expected to change for a long period, the middle and rear drivers can take their hands off the wheel. That works in parts of the USA where distances are long, such as in the Arizona desert. In the UK, there really aren’t long stretches of motorway like that. The M1, for example, has stretches where the hard shoulder is sometimes used for regular traffic and sometimes not, and stretches which are quite narrow and windy (e.g. near Luton), has frequent roadworks and closures (almost every night), and has very frequent interchanges. Many motorways have junctions where two or three lanes go under and one goes off to a roundabout (e.g. the M40 at junction 4). So human intervention is going to be required very frequently, to say nothing of the large parts of many such journeys that are not along motorways or where re-routing is necessary to avoid delays, sometimes at quite short notice. The driver will have to intervene in emergencies, and the nature of emergencies is that they happen in split seconds — a car pulling in between you and the vehicle in front and slowing rapidly, for example. So he won’t be able to have a snooze or read a book or do anything which will allow him to pay less attention to the road. The job will just be even more tedious than it already is.
I have my doubts about the technology involved. It has already been suggested that the wireless technology used to communicate between the leading and following vehicles may be subject to interception by terrorists. I find this unlikely as the driver can override it (or at least should be able to), although any truck can simply be hijacked, much as any aeroplane which isn’t locked down, as commercial airliners are now, can be. What is more likely is that it can just fail: most modern trucks have technology in every corner and yet sensor failures or defects happen all the time (though particularly on early computerised trucks; they have improved in the last few years) and drivers are faced with spurious errors about, for example, low tyre pressure, all the time. The wireless connection could be lost, for example because of interference, damage to the aerial, a loose connection somewhere or a bug in the software. The connection is likely to be weaker between the front and rear trucks than between the front and middle, despite being more vital as there are two trucks closely ahead instead of just one. The majority of articulated trucks do not have rear cameras to help with reversing (I’ve only seen one that has, and it appears to have been installed by the regular driver as no other truck on that fleet has one), and this would be a far more useful application for this technology.
The Freight Transport Association, which represents hauliers, has said that this technology will help to reduce fuel costs and emissions. However, it still involves multiple vehicles of up to 44 tonnes with 12- or 13-litre diesel engines travelling at between 50 and 56mph over several hundred miles. Of course, there are ways of reducing emissions and improving efficiency, but getting rid of the driver along sections where fuel use is generally constant anyway, because the conditions are (expected to be) constant, will not make much difference unless the driver is incompetent or makes perverse driving decisions; driving style makes more difference where there is more acceleration and braking being done, which is along stretches where they must be driven by the driver. A transport minister, Paul Maynard, has said that platooning “could benefit … other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion”; how? Three trucks of which two are controlled by computer are still three trucks, with the same three 12-litre diesel engines. And a three-truck pile-up caused by computer failure will have the same impact as one caused by driver error, and as part of the plan is that the trucks drive closer together than is usual with human-driven trucks, any failure of that technology has a high risk of having that effect, as the stopping distance of a computer-operated truck is the same as any other truck, and there’ll be no stopping if there’s no thinking.
The real reason I don’t like this development is that the end game is to eliminate drivers’ jobs, and it comes just at a time when a lot of eastern European drivers are going to be moving abroad and they don’t want to have to go back to paying wages that you could pay rent on in London to drivers again. Maybe they’ll end up with trucks being driven with a mixture of autopilot and ‘drivers’ located in front of rows of computers in an office somewhere, like drone pilots (all the better to increase load weight, of course). It will give them an excuse to pay the drivers on the tedious night trunk jobs even less than some of them are paid now, perhaps even minimum wage, for a job that will become even more tedious — it would not be quite so bad if you could ever put your feet up and read a book when driving a 44-tonne truck down a motorway but a £4/hr wage penalty is still a £4/hr wage penalty. There is already a way to move multiple large containers of goods from place to place; you have one big engine at the front, you link all the wagons with the containers on them together, and you have two metal rails underneath so the wagons can’t go astray. Of course, moving some freight from road to rail is good for the environment and in principle I don’t have any objections to automating some of the more tedious aspects of the routine driving jobs, but I fear it won’t stop there: it’ll destroy the enjoyable jobs too.
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