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Automated vehicles could roll into industry

Peter Kenter
Automated vehicles could roll into industry

A new class of vehicles has its sights set on the construction industry — drivers need not apply.

Companies who aren’t prepared for the accelerating pace of the development of automated vehicle (AVs) will be hit broadside by their arrival, says Paul Godsmark, chief technology officer with the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence, a non-profit consultancy specializing in integrating stakeholders with the new technology.

"We could be seeing automated trucks serving the construction industry as early as 2020," he says.

Researchers have been working to develop a fully automated vehicle since the 1940s. However, development accelerated with a contest funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), a research organization of the United States Department of Defense.

In the 2004 challenge, none of the AV contestants completed the 240-kilometre course through the Mojave Desert. In 2005, five vehicles made the grade. In 2007, six AVs successfully negotiated a simulated 96-kilometre urban course in less than six hours.

"Google cherry-picked the best talent behind the winning teams and promptly formed its own Self-Driving Car program," says Godsmark.

"The construction industry will see AVs coming at them from several possible directions, including developments from the Google program. In the mining industry, automated Komatsu dump trucks are already being used by Rio Tinto in mines in Chile and Western Australia, while Suncor is testing its first autonomous hauler in the Alberta oilsands. This offers a natural progression to the construction industry. We’re also seeing similar developments that could impact construction from companies such as Caterpillar in the agriculture industry."

While AVs are not explicitly illegal in Canada, each province will have the final say on how they’ll be integrated into the road system. To date, however, no province has developed either standards, or a clear regulatory or legal framework for testing or licensing AVs.

"The likelihood, then, is that the first construction AVs will appear on the private property of large construction sites, or greenfield road construction projects," says Godsmark. "They’ll likely be service vehicles working at low speed with a specific job to do, performing simple grading and scraping tasks set to GPS co-ordinates. All the while, they’ll be proving they can do the work safely and stay out of everyone’s way while doing it."

However, once AVs become street-legal, the floodgates will open as vehicles from construction material haulers to gravel trucks and cement mixers become fully automated, driving to construction sites, unburdening themselves, refueling and then driving back to home base. As artificial intelligence develops and sensor technology improves, human operators will eventually be replaced on more exacting tasks, such as excavating a construction site.

AVs, however, will be unlikely to dispense with people altogether. A human chaperone might accompany a convoy of automated gravel trucks on the way to a construction site.

Vehicles carrying precious cargo, such as a truckload of copper tubing, might also send along a security guard to ensure that thieves don’t simply stand in front of the safety-conscious AV to stop it, while relieving it of its cargo.

And, while human construction workers have the right to refuse dangerous work, AVs will simply decline to complete any tasks they deem unsafe.

"Construction sites will bcome safer and tighten up their work practices simply to accommodate the AVs and allow them to complete their tasks," Godsmark says.

He also notes that the costs of retrofitting an AV are dropping rapidly.

"Right now it might cost $200,000 to fully automate a truck," he says. "The way Google is talking, by 2017 it might cost less than $10,000."

While Godsmark predicts some initial pushback against AVs, the convergence of autonomous machine technology promises even greater surprises.

"Two or three years after people begin accepting AVs, robots will be  working side by side with humans performing manual labour on construction sites," he says. "That’s how quickly the technology is coming."

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