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Mercedes Sprinter: In need of a human touch

A story about the driverless truck of the future caught my cynical eye the other day. ‘We’ve heard it all before, and it will never catch on’ was my immediate jaded response. But a drive in the latest Mercedes-Benz Sprinter made me think. 

This van has just about all the technology needed to make the driver (almost) redundant – this van really could just about drive itself.

Having stepped out of my very low tech 2000 Skoda Octavia, the first thing that catches the eye are the proximity warning triangles in the huge rear view mirrors. These go amber if there is anything near and red if there is anything very near the side of the van – and then flash red and beep if there is anything close by and the driver starts indicating towards that side.

So by taking an input from the proximity sensors to the steering this van could easily avoid side swipe collisions without the need for a driver. And although this Sprinter didn’t have the steering wheel shaker, fitted to some top of the range Merc cars, a warning light comes on and an alarm sounds if the driver strays across a white lane marker without indicating. So, again, it isn’t too hard to imagine this developing into a driverless system that keeps the vehicle within lane markers, and only allows it to switch lanes to overtake when there is nothing in the way.

Again, despite being equipped almost to the same spec as a top of the range car, this Sprinter didn’t have the adaptive cruise control that automatically maintains a safe distance from the vehicle in front when cruise control is engaged. The van does however have a warning light telling the driver when the gap to the vehicle in front is too small for any given speed, so the systems are all there in place to allow this van to drive up the motorway without slamming into the back of traffic queues. Adaptive cruise is actually a slightly unnerving feature and requires the driver to have a lot of faith in the vehicle electronics, as approaching a line of slow moving traffic at 70mph and waiting for the cruise control to back off the throttle to maintain a safe distance is scary. But it does work and once again this takes away another function of a human driver.

So, today’s vans already have all the sensors and detectors needed to drive the vehicle up a motorway without crashing into anything. All that is left for a human being to do is to decide where the vehicle needs to go to and from, and when to stop for fuel (and it isn’t too hard to imagine that linking sat-nav and routeing and scheduling systems to the vehicle controller could overcome even these limitations) and how to drive the van in urban areas where there is just too much going on even for a computer to process. So maybe platoons of driverless trucks, vans and cars isn’t so far off.

The technology is certainly here and is undoubtedly making a major contribution to road safety already. But surely what will hold back driverless vans in the real world is that there aren’t in fact that many journeys that involve just cruising up a motorway for hours on end. The vast majority of vehicles spend a big chunk of their time manoeuvring, collecting, dropping-off, detouring, driving on urban or country roads etc etc. So let’s not write off the driver just yet – the majority of jobs do still require that human touch.

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