So-called platoons of lorries may soon be a familiar sight on the UK’s motorways, after the government signed off £8.1m in funding to support trials of wireless networking technology to allow tightly-packed convoys of vehicles to accelerate, brake and steer in sync.
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Platooning involves connected vehicles travelling close together in a convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle. Because the lead vehicle pushes air out of the way, the following vehicles do not have to burn as much fuel to cut through the air and therefore operate more efficiently, and with lower carbon emissions.
The trial will be carried out in three phases, with the first focusing on the potential for platooning on the UK’s major roads. Initial test track-based research will help decide details such as distance between vehicles and which roads might be suitable for the technology.
In the government’s tests, which will take place on private test tracks before hopefully moving to the motorway system by the end of 2018, all participating lorries will also have a human driver ready to take control at any time, if needed.
Transport minister Paul Maynard said the trials had the potential to massively 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,” he said.
“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 legwork will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), based in Wokingham, with funds flowing through the Department for Transport and Highways England.
“The trial has the potential to demonstrate how greater automation of vehicles – in this instance, HGVs – can deliver improvements in safety, better journeys for road users and reduction in vehicle emissions,” said Highways England chief executive Jim O’Sullivan.
“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.”
However, not all motoring experts support the tests. Speaking to the BBC’s Today programme, an AA spokesperson raised concerns about the nature of the UK’s motorway network and its suitability for testing potentially hazardous technology. He pointed out that the UK lacks the wide, straight stretches of road associated with western US interstate highways, where previous trials of autonomous trucking technology have taken place, including the world’s first fully autonomous delivery in October 2016.
Fujitsu’s Russell Goodenough, client managing director for the transport sector, acknowledged that the road to autonomous vehicles would be bumpy and said the UK would have to move quickly to get ready.
“There remain key challenges to be addressed, including how these vehicles will fit into the existing transport infrastructure and the measures that must be taken to ensure their cyber security,” said Goodenough. “We have already seen cases of connected and autonomous vehicles and even road signs being hacked – safety of the driver and passengers must be of the utmost concern.
“Now it’s up to everyone in the transport sector to have these tricky conversations about when – and how – driverless vehicles will enter our transport systems, so we can ensure that we realise the great benefits on offer. This pilot project is a significant step in the right direction.”