THANKS TO its hosting of “Top Gear”, a British television show for motoring enthusiasts that has become a global brand, a former second-world-war airfield called Dunsfold, hidden deep in the home counties of England, is one of the best known vehicle-testing tracks in the world. On October 15th, however, instead of reverberating to the roar of supercars driven by the show’s anonymous racing driver, the Stig, it witnessed the bizarre sight of what appeared to be the cabless trailer of an articulated lorry belting almost silently around the course at over 80kph.
This autonomous electrically powered truck, known as the Pod, was not as fast as the Stig behind the wheel of a Ferrari. It was, though, travelling at just above what is the legal speed limit for heavy goods vehicles on many European roads. A few days later it went for another spin—this time further south, around the Goodwood Motor Circuit in Chichester, as part of that venue’s “Speedweek”. In doing so it earned plaudits from commentators about how well it took the “racing line”, as the optimal path around a racetrack is known.
The Pod was made by Einride, a Swedish firm founded in 2016 by Robert Falck, an engineer who used to work for Volvo. Mr Falck thinks that the technology of vehicle autonomy, long experimental, has now evolved sufficiently for driverless goods vehicles to begin earning their livings properly. Some Pods are already in trials for real jobs: running between warehouses, hauling logs from forests and delivering goods for Lidl, a supermarket group.
Like other autonomous vehicles in development, the Pod navigates and avoids obstacles using a combination of sensors which include satellite-positioning, cameras, radar and lidar (an optical-frequency analogue of radar that employs reflected laser light to build up a three-dimensional image of a vehicle’s surroundings). Its power comes from lithium-ion batteries, and these provide a range of up to 180km between charges.
Where Mr Falck’s lorry differs from those others is in the way that it tries to deal with the regulatory concerns which prevent fully autonomous vehicles from being let loose on public roads. Einride’s initial approach is to avoid them, by avoiding the roads in question. The first version of the Pod is instead designed to operate on designated routes within the confines of enclosed, private areas such as ports and industrial parks. Here, Pods act like bigger and smarter versions of the delivery robots that already run around some factories—though, having the ability to carry 16 tonnes, and with room for 15 industrial pallets-worth of goods, they are indeed quite a lot bigger.
The second difference from most other attempts at vehicle autonomy is the Pod’s approach to the word “autonomy”. Some makers take the idea literally, and aim to keep humans out of the decision-making loop entirely. Others, often prompted by traffic regulations, arrange things so that a normally passive human occupant can take the controls if necessary. Pods pursue a third way. They always have a human in the loop, but this is a remote operator who keeps an eye on what is happening and is ready to take over the driving for a difficult manoeuvre or if something goes wrong.
Having the driver sitting back at HQ rather than in the vehicle itself is a departure from convention, but not, of itself, a huge one. Aerial drones are usually controlled remotely in this way. The radical step is that Mr Falck believes you do not need a remote driver for each Pod. Einride already uses one remote driver to control two pods, but plans eventually for a single driver to look after ten.
How regulators might take to that for use on open roads remains to be seen. Much will depend on how often the remote driver has to intervene. If it is not very often then monitoring simultaneous Pods might be considered acceptable. Again, this could come about in a similar way to that in which drones have entered the market. At first regulators banned flights that were out-of-sight of the remote pilot, but as operating experience has shown that such flights can be flown safely, they are often allowed these days. Now, some test flights using multiple drones controlled by one remote pilot have been given permission.
Other Pods are being developed by Einride to venture onto local and rural roads, and a version suitable for motorways is planned for 2023—with remote operators, if allowed. While Pods working in private enclosed areas are likely to have their speeds restricted to 30kph or so, which will help with multiple remote-monitoring, the versions intended for public roads will operate at higher speeds and be equipped with more powerful, long-range sensors. All these vehicles, if successful, promise not only a change in the way that goods are delivered, but also the possibility of another of the oddball races “Top Gear” is famous for—between the Stig in a conventional lorry and, with its speed governor disabled for the day, the electronic system guiding one of Mr Falck’s creations.