If you thought self-driving trucks were a thing of the future you might need to rethink as the government has just agreed to invest £8.1 million in a trial of truck platooning on UK roads, as early as next year. |
Platooning is seen by many to be a shortcut to putting self-driving trucks on the road. The driver of the lead truck uses a digital system to dictate the speed and position of the trucks behind which are digitally linked to the platoon.
Trial and Error
The trial, funded by the Government and Highways England, will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). This is the same research group that has recently tested driverless passenger shuttles in London and driver-free delivery pods for online purchases.
As part of the test to see how UK roads will support self-driving trucks, three HGVs will be digitally connected (although a human driver will accompany each truck in case they are needed). The road tests will only go ahead, however, once platooning has been trialled and deemed safe on private testing roads.
Transport minister, Paul Maynard, warned that while advances such as these could have many positive benefits for safety and business, the trial would only be rolled out if the government was assured that the technology was safe and would work well on UK roads.
The Benefits of Platooning
Thanks to the automation of the three HGVs, the vehicles will be able to travel safely much closer together than they would under driver control. This will reduce wind drag on the two following trucks and therefore dramatically reduce fuel consumption and lower emissions. Potentially this could provide substantial savings for haulage companies and benefits for the environment. Proponents also claim that platooning fleets will reduce congestion on UK roads.
While most transport analysts agree that in some form or other, self-driving trucks will be the future for the haulage industry, there are some who question whether platooning is the right answer for UK roads.
Trials have been carried out successfully in America and Europe but concerns have been raised that, due to the traffic volumes on UK roads and the large number of exits on our motorways, platoons of HGVs may not work here.
Edmund King, president of the AA, has said: “We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries. Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America. A platoon of just three HGVs can obscure road signs from drivers in the outside lanes and potentially make access to entries or exits difficult for other drivers. Even a three-truck platoon is longer than half a Premier League football pitch.”
Richard Burnett, chief executive of the RHA, agreed safety was the biggest concern: “Of course we welcome improvements to the way the road freight industry works and we understand the benefits that such a mode of operation would bring. However, currently the focus seems to be on the technology behind the system. Safety has to come first and it cannot be compromised.”
With so many pros and cons, all we can do is watch next year’s platooning trials eagerly to see if this is a potential way forward for the haulage industry.
Norman Dulwich is a Correspondent for Haulage Exchange, the leading online trade network for the road transport industry. Connecting professionals across the UK and Europe through their website, Haulage Exchange provides a valuable service, updating members with the latest information on issues affecting road safety, fuel costs, technology, self driving trucks and other news from the industry. Matching delivery work with available vehicles, over 4,500 transport exchange businesses are networked together through their website, trading jobs and capacity in a safe 'wholesale' environment.
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