Driverless Trucks Will Be Commonplace on Dutch Roads By the End of the Decade

The Netherlands plans to have commercial trucks on the road within five years.

Jun 18 2014, 8:25pm
Rotterdam. Image: Flickr/Vincent_AF

The driverless car revolution will play out not in city centers, but on highways. The first commercial use of the technology won't be in cars at all, but in huge semi trucks. Oh, and it's happening now, not in some distant future: The Netherlands just announced its plan to put autonomous trucks on the road within five years.

The plan starts now, essentially: Dutch infrastructure minister Schultz van Haegen said that she will present a bill early next year that will remove existing legal roadblocks that stand in the way of driverless cars—namely, the ones that suggest you need a human to drive a car. Initially, computer simulations will be used to test the technology, then trucks will be tested on closed tracks, with a goal of having commercial, self-driving trucks servicing Rotterdam, one of Europe's largest ports, in five years.

The government says that initial testing plans have already been submitted by the Rotterdam port and other government groups within the country.

In many ways, trucks are a much more obvious thing to automate than cars. The vast majority of any given truck's miles come on highways, where there are fewer obstacles and a relatively predictable traffic flow. Truck drivers, meanwhile, work long hours, and are thus prone to drowsy driving or losing focus.

Regulations in many countries, including the United States, require that truck drivers get a certain amount of sleep each day and restrict the amount of consecutive hours that any given trucker can drive. In the United States, there are roughly 400,000 trucking accidents every year, according to the Department of Transportation. 

That safety aspect isn't lost on van Haegen, who said that the "age of self-driving cars has arrived."  

“Self-driving cars will make a positive contribution to the flow of traffic and to the safety of our busy road network," she said. "Developments in this field will change the relationship between driver and vehicle more in the next twenty years than anything in the past one hundred years did."

So far, self-driving trucks have been tested in Japan, and convoys have been tested by Lockheed Martin at Fort Hood in Texas and by a company in Nevada, but the Dutch plan is the first serious announcement by any country that its going to get serious about commercializing the technology in the near future. 

And make no mistake, it's a huge move for the country that's going to make it one of the most efficient, logistically, in the entire world. Much of Rotterdam's port is already automated—once you can start using robots to autonomously pull shipping containers off of autonomous ships and place them onto roboticized trucks, you've got a truly autonomous supply line going.

The Dutch government said that the country's initial tests with trucks will be used to help inform the "large-scale introduction of cars that can drive themselves" in the country. The idea that driverless vehicles would become commonplace by the end of the decade would have seen like a pipe dream just a few years ago—now, it looks like an inevitability.