Who will be the first to go driverless?

Driverless vehicles are everywhere, from test courses to conference agendas. But it’s not just cars and lorries: ships are becoming self-sailing, too. So where will the pioneers be, on road or water?

Text: Martin Eimermacher

A lorry driver doing the crossword on the autobahn might seem a scary prospect but one expert believes advances in automation will make this possible within a decade. 

To see how far down this road driverless vehicles have come, we can refer to the US-based Society of Automotive Engineers, which defines different levels of automation. “For lorries, we are currently on level two out of five,” says Gerhard Nowak, head of strategy consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers and author of a study entitled The Era of Digitised Trucking. Level 2 means partial automation: the driver receives assistance in the form of an emergency braking and a lane-departure warning – but otherwise remains in control.

Nowak believes we may have reached level 4 by 2025, allowing the driver to do puzzles while the lorry rumbles along unassisted. The driver would only need to intervene in an emergency. Daimler tested a prototype of this kind, the Mercedes-Benz Future Truck 2025, on a German motorway for the first time in 2015, having obtained special permission from the authorities. The head of the state government for Baden-Württemberg, Winfried Kretschmann, was in the passenger seat. However, even if this lorry were ready to go into production in 10 years, it would be limited to selected routes. “Even in 2025, computers will not be able to handle complex traffic situations,” says Nowak. “In densely populated areas and in regions where there are no good links between the motorway and the distribution centres, for example, you’ll still need people.”

Humans will only be able to leave the driver’s cabin for a control room, monitoring the unmanned lorry on a screen, once level 5 has been achieved: full automation. This may take another 30 years, because data transmission speeds are still 100 times too slow. Also, traffic laws banning unmanned vehicles from public highways would have to be revised. And who would be liable for a crash if the driver was a computer?

So, might fully automated transport emerge first at sea, where complex traffic situations are much less common than on motorways? For many years, the marine engineering division of Rolls-Royce has been developing concepts for container ships that do not need a crew and can steer around obstacles autonomously. However, making these visions a reality is still a distant goal because shipping is governed by numerous international regulations, including crew guidelines that dictate how many people have to be on board each vessel. And computers cannot service an engine. Ships running on heavy fuel oil – still the majority – are particularly high maintenance. Uninterrupted global satellite coverage is also lacking.

The first milestones have already been reached, though, such as automatic cargo monitoring and collision-avoidance systems, which take some of the pressure off the crew. Even so, the first fully automated ships are unlikely to be on the high seas before 2030. So lorries are still in the lead.