The UK government today unveiled plans to trial self-driving trucks as part of small convoys on roads by next year. Under the so-called “platooning” scheme, part of the UK’s overall 8.1-million-pound commitment to finance the testing of semi-autonomous vehicles, a “platoon leader” driving a heavy goods vehicle will head a small convoy with the following trucks being managed through computers.
A contract has been awarded to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out the tests, during which acceleration and braking will be controlled by the lead vehicle. “We believe this system has the potential not just to save fuel and therefore emissions, but also to reduce congestion on our roads,” said UK roads minister Paul Maynard. “It’s potentially win-win all round, and this investment is to ensure we are at the forefront of this new technology,” he said.
The trucks will drive closely behind one another and will be linked electronically, communicating via radar, GPS and Wi-Fi. Speed, position and the route will be determined by the driver of the lead truck. The distance between the trucks is optimised to reduce air drag, cutting fuel consumption and emissions – potentially by up to 20 per cent. The TRL will begin trials of the technology on test tracks, with the trials expected to move to major UK roads by the end of 2018.
TRL’s Richard Cuerden said: “The primary issue is one of safety, but these trials will hopefully allow us to collect a lot of data about not just the technology, but the behaviour of both the truck drivers and other road users.” Similar trials have already been carried out in America and across Europe but some experts fear the scheme may not work on Britain’s already heavily congested roads.
“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,” said Edmund King, chief of the UK’s Automobile Association (AA). All trucks to be used in the trials will have a driver ready to take control if required.