Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor

Rolf Lockwood, Executive Contributing Editor

Talk about a lot of buzz. The idea of autonomously driven cars is getting an absolute ton of airplay these days. I can’t open my email inbox without seeing some new example of cars that need their drivers only sometimes. To be honest, it kinda gives me the willies.

Then again, maybe I could come to appreciate programmed — meaning predictable — four-wheelers instead of the wild and woolly bunch that get in our way so often today. And so often with no appreciation of the risks they routinely take. Every proponent of self-controlling cars makes that point, that this technology will improve highway safety and save a bunch of lives. 

There’s a truck in the autonomous mix too, of course — namely the Mercedes-Benz Actros-based Future Truck 2025 that I saw in action a couple of times last year (see “New Truck? Or New World?” HDT August 2014) — but it doesn’t scare me at all. The big German outfit figures such trucks will be on the market in 10 years time, but Dutch transport officials have a plan that would see self-driving trucks hauling freight from Rotterdam, Europe’s largest port, to other cities in the next five years.

Five years!

Initial testing has begun on computer simulations to be followed by physical trials on test tracks. It could put the Netherlands at the heart of the self-driving revolution, said a recent Reuters report. Not least because the Dutch, unlike almost everyone else, are focusing first on trucks.

The technology is much the same for cars and trucks, in fact, though almost all the work being done on autonomous vehicles worldwide looks only in a four-wheeler direction. That said, we already have examples of such vehicles used in agriculture and the military, and many in warehouse situations.

This relentless push toward vehicles that drive themselves accelerated a little with the recent publication of a comprehensive report on the subject by German logistics giant DHL, which morphed out of the country’s post office. The report, “Self-Driving Vehicles in Logistics,” highlights the key elements and significant potential of autonomous technologies.

The next evolutionary step, it says, will be moving self-driving vehicles — already common on warehouse floors — onto public roads. It predicts that we’ll see autonomously driven truck convoys before too long, though no timeline is offered.

Believe it or not, DHL also sees the possibility of self-driving parcels. Not by way of an airborne drone but a road-going — make that sidewalk-going — vehicle the exact size of the parcel being delivered. Meaning it could be pretty small.

An autonomous truck would offload a number of parcel-sized autonomous vehicles close to their final destination, then each one would “drive” to its final delivery point, travelling on sidewalks, mounting steps, and climbing rails. To keep their contents safe, these parcel-sized vehicles would be electronically locked and would obviously have a GPS-location function. They might even be temperature-controlled.

Upon reaching the destination, it would access the building by way of a small gate similar to a cat door. A “smart home” device would control this gate, so only approved parcels could enter. The recipients would unload their parcel and use a smartphone app to send the vehicle back to the carrier.

The prospect of being a pedestrian nerfed by a mobile box of books from Amazon is at least a little amusing. A Victoria’s Secret shipment would hurt less, I suppose.