Is the construction industry ready for autonomous vehicles?

Posted by Derek Mason

2nd March 2021

Picture credit: Shane McLendon on Unsplash

Autonomous vehicles are the future. But they are also the source of much debate. A quick Google search throws up several incidents where autonomous cars have been involved in fatal crashes.

And while the accidents caused by autonomous vehicles are generally less severe than those caused by humans, they do have a higher accident rate overall. Most of us would want to see autonomous vehicles as being safer than human-controlled ones before we’re happy to see them on our roads.

So what do we think about autonomous vehicles on construction sites, or in quarries? The accident rates in UK construction are some of the highest of any sector, with almost four times the average death rate for all industries.

And out of 111 UK worker deaths in 2019/2020, 20 of those workers were struck by a moving vehicle.

So it might seem a little premature for AI-controlled vehicles to be let loose in quarries. But that’s exactly what’s planned for this spring, at a stone quarry near Osterfjord, on the west coast of Norway. Although the plan is to let humans remain in control to start with, which seems eminently sensible.

The four autonomous dumper trucks, manufactured by Steer AS, are set to start work with humans in the driving seat, to check everything functions as it should.

Once the vehicles have been fully tested, the wheel loader driver will control them via an iPad from the cabin.

The trucks will be loaded with rock, and then follow a pre-planned route out of the quarry to dump their cargo down a shaft to the quarry’s crushing plant. After that, the aggregate will be shipped both within Norway and overseas.

In preparation for the larger vehicles starting this work, Steer has been testing miniature vehicles in Oslo.

When you consider that the job of unloading this rock is a fairly repetitive task, I believe it makes sense to use robots. Humans don’t like doing the same things day in, day out – they suffer with boredom and fatigue – so it makes sense to use automated vehicles for this task. As long as they are carefully tested and remain safe.

It will be interesting to see if similar tests begin to happen in the UK. Similar trials have taken place in Sweden, with Skanska and Volvo Construction Equipment, and Steer has received 2 million NOK (£170,000) from Innovation Norway.

Our own government has put more than £800,000 into a project to develop an automotive cybersecurity assurance framework, to help build trust in this industry. So it seems likely this technology is on the way for us too.

What do you think? Is it a positive step forward to have autonomous vehicles completing mundane tasks in quarries? And could we ultimately see these vehicles on construction sites? Or do you think this is a step in the wrong direction?

I’m interested to hear your views. And if you need any input on the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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