Look ma, no hands!

If automotive manufacturers are to be believed, truck drivers and chauffeurs had better start polishing up their CVs as they quite possibly face the chop thanks to advancements in technology.

Self-driving, or autonomous systems are the future and considerable headway has already been made to improve the systems that will allow car owners to sit back, relax and leave the driving to computer systems.

Although this is a distant reality for South African road users, global vehicle manufacturers have dedicated significant money and brain power to the pursuit of the self-driving vehicle.

Internationally, though, Ford reckons self-driving cars will be commercially available by 2025, Volvo has set a goal that by 2020 its vehicles will prevent death or serious injury, and Mercedes-Benz in the US said the first E-Class with its Intelligent Drive system will be available from next year.

Practically every major manufacturer — and even Google — has developed or is developing some kind of intelligent system that removes human error by removing control.

The truck and commercial vehicle market has long been investigating the means to automate the driving experience, less for the comfort of the driver, although fatigue is a serious consideration in this regard — in trying to improve fuel efficiency and lower carbon emissions.

Apart from engine and emissions technologies, truck makers have been toying with using autonomous driving systems to create truck convoys or platoons that allow vehicles to form up into tightly-spaced convoys that minimise drag and improve fuel efficiencies.

Such systems rely on sensors and communication technologies that enable the lead vehicle to effectively take control of the vehicles behind it to safely get the maximum savings.

Numerous studies have been conducted to improve this technology, with indications that enough progress could be made for such convoys to appear on the roads by 2018.

Some of the most extensive tests include those by truck retailer group, Scania, which set up a 520km truck platooning test last year, as well as Volvo's studies that have traversed more than 10 000km as part of its Safe Road Trains for the Environment (Sartre) programme.

Autonomous truck driving has probably been taken to the greatest extreme by Caterpillar, which will have 45 self-driving, 240-ton mining trucks deployed at an Australian iron-ore mine by the end of this year.

The benefits from such proximity and platooning technologies are also expected to become reality for passenger vehicles.

Volvo said that the results of its Sartre programme have shown that it will be viable for passenger cars to employ the same technology and gain the same benefits as realised with its trucks.

Another area seeing some technology cross-over between trucks and cars is in the development of alternative powertrains and fuel-efficiency and emission control systems.

The development of battery-powered and electric vehicles is probably being driven more by developments in the passenger vehicle segment, although the pace of technology advancement may well see the introduction of new systems that can be applied across vehicle types.

Fuel and emissions efficiency is naturally a key concern for fleet owners and innovations in this regard have progressed in tandem with developments in the car market.

It makes sense for manufacturers to offer such gains to both vehicle segments.

And proof that it's not only the industry's giants developing new systems, India's Mahindra & Mahindra said earlier this year that its fuel smart technology, deployed in its Maxximo Plus mini-truck, could soon be introduced to its passenger vehicles.

The extent of the chasm between the reality for South African fleet and car owners and their European and American counterparts might be measured in the lack of information and insight from local manufacturers contacted in researching this article.

This article forms part of a supplement made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers. Contents and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G’s supplements editorial team.

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