We’ve talked about driverless buses and even pilotless airliners so we may as well complete the set. Self-driving trucks are going to be tested on Britain’s roads in 2018. The tests will look at ‘platooning’ where up to three vehicles travel in convoy.
Testing will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL). Initially the trials will take place on test tracks before moving onto the motorways. It is hoped self-driving trucks will lead to lower emissions and savings on fuel. Savings which will hopefully be passed onto the consumer.
What is platooning?
A platoon is a group of three or four, or possibly more, vehicles moving in convoy. The convoy is controlled by the driver of the lead vehicle. The leader controls speed, braking, and steering which the other trucks automatically match.
A minimum gap is kept between each vehicle, around four to ten metres, with the lead truck sending out multiple signals every second to make constant adjustments. The drivers of the drone vehicles do nothing until they need to cut out of the convoy. They then take back manual control of their truck.
The perceived benefits of platooning include improving fuel efficiency, reducing accidents, and increasing road capacity.
What’s happened so far?
There have been a number of experiments around the world with self-driving trucks. As far back as 2012 Sweden was testing platooning. Vehicle manufacturer Scania were the driving force behind the experiments on the 520km route between Sodertalje and Helsingborg.
Other tests have taken place in Germany and the USA and notably in Japan. The Japanese tests aimed to achieve platooning with vehicles travelling within four metres of each other at speeds of up to 80km/h. The drone trucks in the Japanese tests were not completely dumb as they included failsafe systems and radar to recognise road markings.
All the testing so far seems to confirm the benefits of platooning. The drafting of vehicles in a convoy reduces drag and improves fuel consumption. In addition the close travelling trucks do reduce the space needed by a convoy of vehicles.
Will it work in the UK?
Much of the testing so far has taken place on enclosed tracks. However, self-driving trucks have also been successfully tested on public highways, particularly in the Netherlands. The issue here in the UK is the size of our roads and the congestion on them.
Driving along a typical British motorway is a lot different to the wide open highways of America or the uncluttered roads in Scandinavia and much of Europe. There are more exits closely spaced together and the volume of traffic for the amount of road is huge compared to other countries where testing has taken place.
It is this which has motoring organisations worried about the safety of self-driving trucks. Edmund King, president of the AA, told the BBC: “We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion but we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it.
“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.”
Steve Gooding of the RAC agrees. He said: “Streams of close-running HGVs could provide financial savings on long-distance journeys, but on our heavily congested motorways – with stop-start traffic and vehicles jostling for position – the benefits are less certain.”
However, the TRL are sure they can deliver. Chief Executive Rob Wallis said: ““The UK has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialling connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment. TRL and its consortium of leading international partners, have the practical and technical knowledge gained from previous projects to understand what is required to put a connected vehicle platoon on to UK roads safely.”
Will we see self-driving trucks anytime soon on British roads?
Apart from the test vehicles? Unlikely. The technology isn’t going to be the issue. As we have seen it is the challenge posed by British roads which may prevent convoys of self-driving trucks appearing on the M1 anytime soon.
It is suggested that on British roads the drivers in the drone vehicles will have a more active role. The driver will manually take control of the vehicle if a car attempts to squeeze into a gap or the convoy is unable to safely pass an entrance road without allowing other vehicles to join the convoy.
With such a reliance on humans to drive the drones it all does seem rather pointless. At least in the short term.
Let us know what you think in the comments box below.