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Highways England Tests Autonomous Trucks for Road Construction

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【Summary】During the trials, driverless dump trucks will be used to haul excavated soil around the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. Launching autonomous trucks is part of the agency’s massive plan to upgrade the local area’s road network.

Michael Cheng    May 15, 2019 5:00 AM PT
Highways England Tests Autonomous Trucks for Road Construction

In the UK, self-driving trucks are being tested to support critical road construction projects. Highways England, a government-owned business tasked with maintaining the country's major roadways, is spearheading this movement through recently launched trials at sites along the A14.

Blackwell, a leading earthworks contractor, will provide support for the program as a partner of the agency. Traditionally, the company deploys non-autonomous excavators that are equipped with audible safety alarms and rotating cameras to prevent collisions. If successful, the use of autonomous trucks could help cities by easing shortages in human truck drivers and boosting safety at dangerous road construction sites.

Self-driving Trials at A14

During the trials, driverless dump trucks will be used to haul excavated soil around the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. The units are programmed to follow a set route, via a GPS tracker, laser light and external sensors. Designed for carrying heavy loads, the equipment was initially made for mining trucks in Australia. Accurate mapping allows driving precision as close as 25mm.

At the site, the bright yellow trucks operate on dirt roads, while avoiding obstacles, workers and other vehicles. Slow, steady speed limits are enforced to ensure safety within the rugged environment. Human operators monitor the self-driving dump truck from a remote location. A demonstration video of the vehicle in action showed it maneuvering open excavation sites without a driver. Cones with balloons served as safety markers for the units.

"It's not to replace drivers but it's to be able to respond to the capacity that we will need," said Julian Lamb, Deputy Project Director at Highways England.

"Road construction has changed massively over the years and the testing of trucks such as these promises to allow us to work efficiently, speeding up roadworks, giving more protection to road workers, and moving jobs to other skilled areas."

Trials are expected to continue for roughly three years before the trucks will be fully adopted for road construction. The agency highlighted that implementing regulations that support autonomous fleets could help streamline this aspect of the program. To date, Highways England has provided around $195,000 in funding for the project.

Shortage of Truck Drivers and Safety

According to Lamb, there is currently a shortage of truck drivers in the UK. Such gaps in requirements, coupled with the need to increase efficiency, are reasons why cities are looking to driverless alternatives. Indeed, self-driving trucks could perform vital tasks more consistently and for extended periods of time without breaks compared to human workers. Highways England also believes that deploying autonomous trucks could make workplaces safer, as direct interaction with machines is greatly reduced.

"The trial will enable the construction industry as a whole to be in a more informed position to make key decisions about autonomy on UK construction sites," said Lamb.

Launching autonomous trucks is part of the agency's massive plan to upgrade the local area's road network. Outlined in a 2017 report, Highways England's strategy involves transitioning to 5G infrastructure, using drones to support patrolling and smart vehicles.

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