The Netherlands has just announced a five-year plan to make the country safe for autonomous vehicles and vice-versa, with a particular emphasis on trucks. Rules of the road will be redrafted, infrastructure built, and research funded.
The country thus joins a stampede that, like so many automotive fashions, began in California, with the unveiling of the Google Car. Nevada joined the charge early, and Michigan was quick off the mark too, the city of Ann Arbor having just established a center for autonomous driving. Sweden's Gothenburg, home of Volvo, is doing much the same.
One thing Holland has that few other countries can match is a compact territory coupled to an enormous transportation hub, which boasts Europe's busiest air, sea and land links. And trucks seem to be a particularly good match because of their role in the container shipping model, which has transformed the world economy.
Trucks are, in fact, the last link in the chain connecting production to consumption that remains fully under the control of a mere human being. Here's how it works: A robot at a factory in Japan loads a standard container with refrigerators, say, bolts it shut, and places it on a flatbed truck. The truck takes the box to the most convenient seaport, where a robotic crane hoists the box onto a ship, where it fits a perfectly matching space in the hold. The ship—itself mostly robotic, with merely a skeleton crew—steams to the port city of Rotterdam, where another robotic crane hoists the container onto another truck that takes it to a retailer, say in Germany. There the box is unbolted and unloaded, again perhaps by robots. And presto, all the refrigerators are still there; not one has "fallen off the back" of a truck.
That's basically why stuff has gotten so cheap and manufacturing jobs have become so scarce. A robotic truck would thus merely complete what is already an almost all-robot system.
The Dutch government says that the first tests will be simple computer simulations. The first road tests will involve truck convoys, perhaps putting just the lead vehicle under the control of a human driver. That test will be conducted by a research consortium including DAF, a Dutch truckmaker, the Port of Rotterdam and Transport & Logistiek Nederland. "The consortium wants to test autonomous lorries that drive in convoys. The aim of the consortium is, within five years, to bring technology onto the market that logistics companies with such lorries can use to drive on public roads."
Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.