Green Light for Driverless Trucks

In a recent update, the government announced plans for trials of new semi-automated convoys which will travel on UK Motorways. The convoys will consist of a maximum of three wirelessly connected HGVs, with acceleration, braking and steering controlled by the lead vehicle. The concept, also named ‘platooning’, is a semi-automated system and still requires each truck to have a driver in the cab, ready to take control when needed

Yet to confirm where these trials will take place, the government also announced £8m to help fund the new technology.

How will it work?

It is believed the new technology will have major benefits by cutting both congestion and cost of fuel for hauliers. However, a number of our drivers have voiced concerns about safety, particularly on motorways.

The transport minister Paul Maynard said: “We are investing in technology that will improve people’s lives.

“Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion.

“But first we must make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads, and that’s why we are investing in these trials.”

The trial

The trial will be conducted by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), which has been involved in other tests of driverless vehicles, including passenger shuttles in Greenwich and autonomous delivery pods for online shopping.

Rob Wallis, chief executive of TRL, said: “The UK has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialling connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment.”

Similar trials have been successfully carried out in the US and Europe. An EU challenge in 2016 saw platoons of connected trucks travelling from Germany, Sweden and Belgium converge in Rotterdam.

What are the pitfalls?

However, many of our drivers fear platoons could obscure signs and exits on Britain’s crowded roads, particularly since the hard shoulders on converted “smart” motorways are now being used for regular traffic. The president of the AA, Edmund King, said the government had listened to their concerns and decided against a planned pilot scheme on the M6.

“We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduced congestion but we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it,” King 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.”

The Road Haulage Association said it would be following the trials very carefully. Its chief executive, Richard Burnett, said: “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. It is crucial that this element of the concept gets the highest priority.”

Highways England suggested platooning could make journeys safer. Jim O’Sullivan, the chief executive, said: “Investing in this research shows we care about those using our roads, the economy and the environment, and safety will be integral as we take forward this work with TRL.”