Autonomous vehicles: the future of the construction industry

Connected and autonomous vehicles (CAVs) have the potential to transform the construction industry.

28 July 2017

Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs), or 'driverless cars', promise to transform the way in which we travel.

Testing of autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles for personal transport is already underway in a number of countries and the UK aims to be at the forefront of these new technologies. Burges Salmon has a dedicated CAV team advising on trial projects and emerging regulatory issues and is the legal partner to the VENTURER, FLOURISH and CAPRI consortia – national driverless cars projects that could pave the way for the use of autonomous vehicles to move people around roads, public spaces, airports, hospitals, business parks, shopping and tourist centres.

Opportunities for the construction industry

The connected road system that will be required to accommodate autonomous vehicles presents a great challenge and opportunity for the UK construction industry.

Highways and transport infrastructure will face increasing pressure to keep up with the rapidly changing technologies and ‘future proof’ existing projects. This could lead to a period of rapid infrastructure upgrades resulting in a boon for construction and engineering firms.

But more than this, autonomous vehicles and robotics have the potential to revolutionise the construction industry itself and transform building sites.

Recognising this opportunity, the government announced on 24 July 2017 that it was making available a £25 million fund towards research and development of off-road autonomous vehicle technology for the construction, mining and farming industries. This is part of the UK government’s overall CAV R&D funding package which is already in excess of £100 million and goes hand in hand with a separate fund of over £200 million to fund the development of battery technology which will be a necessary part of that.

Use of autonomous vehicles / equipment in the construction industry

To date, the main focus for developers of autonomous vehicles has been personal transport and freight. However, there are many other potential applications.

Similar technology has already been embraced by the mining industry, for example, which has adopted autonomous vehicles to extract vital rocks and minerals.

Automation of construction vehicles (bulldozers, cranes, diggers, and the like) which are currently manually-operated could provide similar benefits for the construction industry. 

It is commonly recognised that growth of the UK industry is frustrated by a number of factors including:

  • an ageing workforce
  • labour shortages
  • concerns around a lack of efficiency, productivity, and innovation
  • narrow profit margins.

There is also increasing pressure on contractors and developers to reduce emissions and air pollution from construction sites. The new Air Quality Plan and recent indications from the London Mayor Sadiq Khan that he intends to bring in a fine like the congestion charge to be paid by firms using polluting machines could have a significant impact on the construction industry. Construction permits are increasingly subject to environmental and social-impact studies.

Furthermore, use of vehicles and heavy equipment remain a major source of construction fatalities and injuries.

Embracing new technologies could help alleviate a number of these issues.

The benefits

When combined with other new forms of technology including robotics, AI, 3D printing, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), BIM, and so on, the benefits of automated vehicles include:

  • improved safety and working conditions
  • reduced costs and greater efficiency (combined with drones, autonomous vehicles can be guided in more efficient patterns and provide better fuel usage and shortened schedules)
  • lower emissions and congestion due to more efficient vehicle use
  • greater productivity
  • reduction in project delays
  • savings of time, labour, and cost for contractors and developers
  • overcoming the growing shortage of heavy equipment operators
  • allowing firms to remain competitive in an industry operating with very thin margins.

Whilst uptake has not yet been as significant as in other sectors, a number of contractors are already using driver-assisted or semi-autonomous functionality in heavy equipment on site (for example, many bulldozers already use machine learning for blade control), and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or 'drones' are already being used to carry out site surveys and for monitoring during construction. 

In Japan, a company known as Komatsu, has taken this a stage further with the introduction of 'Smart Construction' for excavation and earthmoving operations. Smart Construction uses drones to map sites in 3D and guide robotic vehicles by providing real-time data on the amount of earth being moved around.

Legal landscape

As an industry based on competitive procurement models, the construction industry is traditionally risk-adverse and takes a conservative approach to design and delivery. For such new technologies to be fully embraced by the UK construction industry it is likely that substantial legal and regulatory changes will be required. However, given the potential benefits, it seems only a matter of time before the use of autonomous construction equipment becomes the norm.

Responding to the government’s announcement on new funding for industrial CAV use, Chris Jackson, Head of Transport at Burges Salmon, commented that “This investment will support the unlocking of a potential step change in safety and efficiency gains in these core industrial and agricultural sectors. The safety and economic benefits of connected and autonomous vehicle technology (both surface and air) are already being seen and realised, particularly in the agricultural industry, and the extension of those technologies into more challenging factory, on site and underground environments is a reflection of those benefits. With this investment, the UK can take a leading role in the development of this new wave of industrial off-road technology as well as on the road.

How can Burges Salmon help?

Burges Salmon is canvassing views from across the infrastructure sector to find out how we can improve the procurement and delivery of UK infrastructure and what can be done to improve efficiency. On 13 June we launched a report, Perspectives on Infrastructure, at the National Infrastructure Forum. 

This article was written by Ellen Williams, senior associate. 

Key contact

William Gard

William Gard Partner

  • Construction and Engineering
  • Infrastructure
  • Arbitration

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