Innovation

14 February 2019

Autonomous transport

Challenges in safety and regulations

It will take some time before we will be able to read the paper in the back seat of our self-driving car, but autonomous transport is not a futuristic topic anymore in logistics. 


The technology exists already. In 2020 Norwegian shipbuilding company VARD will release Yara Birkeland, the first fully electric and autonomous ship. Rolls Royce too jumps on the autonomous bandwagon, with plans for an unmanned naval vessel and a research facility in Finland.

Also in Belgium there is innovation. The Vlaamse Waterweg has recognised the entire cruising area as an innovation zone and a legal framework has been created that allows practical tests. That way, boats with remote control are not just toys for kids anymore, but a reality in the Port of Antwerp. The Belgian company Seafar developed in cooperation with the Port Authority the ship ‘Tuimelaar, a barge that can be controlled remotely.

In addition, the Port now also uses a fully autonomous level boat, the Echodrone. "The Port especially wants to play its role as facilitator and innovation platform," says Piet Opstaele, Innovation Lead at the Port of Antwerp. "This summer, for example, there will be extra infrastructure for autonomous mooring, loading and unloading.”      

"The Port especially wants to play its role as facilitator and innovation platform"
Safe co-pilot

Also on the road vehicles no longer need drivers of flesh and blood. Service providers like Amazon and Uber have been experimenting with self-driving cars for some time now, with mixed results.

The Belgian start-up Ivex has made from safe autonomous cars its business model. The company developed a co-pilot for self-driving vehicles, software that guarantees that an autonomous car chooses the safest option in every scenario.

“Ivex has the intention to deploy the software commercially by 2021,” says Quentin de Clercq, COO of Ivex. “But our technology is currently already used for commercial AGVs (Automated Guided Vehicles) and autonomous lawn movers.” Ivex is currently working on a 120-ton AGV for VDL to transport containers autonomously in restricted areas.

Ivex uses Artificial Intelligence and human driving behavior data to generate its safe co-pilot. At runtime the copilot constantly checks the planned trajectory and advises the algorithms of the AD-system (Automated Driving) in order to safely make a decision.

Legal framework

The tech industry for autonomous transport might be growing quickly, the legal framework is still in its infancy. “One of the hard challenges in the development of autonomous cars is validating,” says de Clercq. “Without a legal framework, developers of self-driving cars do not know technically how to validate their system so that the cars do not crash.”

According to Belgian law a human driver should be in charge of every vehicle. It is not mandatory for the driver to actually be present in the car, but a fully autonomous car is strictly speaking prohibited on the public road.

For Marc Van den Broeck, CEO of Trafuco, this law is the reason why autonomous vehicles do not provide added value for a transport company. "In terms of cost efficiency, autonomous trucks are not the solution for the time being. If you have to invest in a truck with self-driving technology, on top of the labour costs of a driver, where is the added value?" says Van den Broeck.

“In the long run, this law should be changed if Belgium wants to be ready for new technologies and business opportunities,” according to de Clercq. There is however already a legal framework for AGVs that for example transport containers autonomously within a limited zone, as well as for autonomous shuttles that follow a fixed, GPS guided route.

On the maritime front, there are also gaps in the legislation. There is not yet a legal framework for autonomous ships. For example, what about the so-called shore-based vessel controller, the person who controls the autonomous ships from land? Besides the legal, there are also psychological issues. Will people be okay with immense cargo ships entering the port, without a captain on board?

"If you have to invest in a truck with self-driving technology, on top of the labour costs of a driver, where is the added value?"
5G is redundant

There are also other problems in Belgium. The roll-out of the 5G network has been postponed and this may have implications for technological developments in the logistics sector. However, according to the Clercq, there is no problem for Ivex and autonomous cars.

"Autonomous vehicles are designed to collect information independently of the network or other communication systems," says de Clercq. This is done via three sensors: radar, camera and lidar, a radar system that works on laser light. "The driving itself is possible without communication with the operator. Communication is required if you want to pass on decisions concerning route determination, but that is such light information that 5G is redundant".

"Autonomous vehicles are designed to collect information independently of the network or other communication systems"
  • Belgium is not behind when it comes to innovation 

  • Legal framework needs change and expansion

  • 5G is not necessary for the operation of autonomous vehicles