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Self-driving trucks: A waste of time?

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.

trucks on road in convoy

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.

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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.

traffic on british motorway

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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.”

motorway traffic jam

Photo credit: Shutterstock

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.

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Craig Ellyard

Token old guy in the office and lifelong Hull City fan with all the psychological issues that brings. To relax I enjoy walking my two Labradors, as well as running and cycling.

22 comments

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  1. Mr B 2 September, 2017 at 19:28

    Here’s a thought: 3 trucks, each with a separate driver. Driver 1 has a heart attack and crashes causing a serious accident. Two other trucks don’t.
    Now, 3 trucks with a single driver: same scenario but far worse outcome.

    Or how about a platoon of three trucks in lane one of motorway. You are in lane two and spot your exit coming up. How do you get off? How do you know they are in fact a platoon at all?

    How does one driver controlling three trucks avoid cyclists and motorcyclists?

  2. Another Mark 5 September, 2017 at 16:05

    Make it even safer and get rid of the human involved.

    They’ll be safer and more efficient.

    If you can’t work out how to get off a motorway when three trucks are near the exit you shouldn’t be driving.

  3. Anonymous 9 September, 2017 at 08:59

    Why not put them on rails and call them “trains”. Our Victorian ancestors were not as stupid as modern politicians try to make out!

  4. Andy M 9 September, 2017 at 08:59

    Make it easier to put haulage onto railways. Railway haulage didn’t work because of the costs of using it. Because we live In a profiteering society. However if we invested some of the money being spent on new motorways etc on better rail haulage infrastructure, these vehicles would not be in the roads in the volumes they are.
    It’s a crazy idea, having said that I have a Volvo car and drive almost permanently on adaptive cruise control which manages the speed and braking in traffic and it works just fine.

  5. Anonymous 9 September, 2017 at 09:15

    Hey why don’t we build a high speed rail link using a concept of driving trucks on and off reducing the time they are on the road and one (train )driver can take say 50 trucks in a convoy oh yes they already will be in a convoy because they are on a train and maybe save fuel and emissions, no it will never work, no wait a minute I hear they may already do this in the Euro tunnel.

  6. Geoff 9 September, 2017 at 09:18

    This is great idea. It is a step toward safer roads and wider use of safer lorries.
    Some drivers will moan about it and leap onto any detail to justify their “self interested” stance. However, these are the drivers that want to drive aggressively.
    All the public automated driving solutions from lorries to cars result in making our roads less attractive as a “play-area” for the fast/aggressive drivers. Any reasonable person would accept that this is a good result.

  7. Anonymous 9 September, 2017 at 09:23

    Not quite sure how this works but if the “driver” of the lead truck decides he needs to overtake do the rest automatically follow, if so, does the drive need to check the mirror looking say 500+ yards back further than the last truck so as not to cause a pile up?

  8. Steve 9 September, 2017 at 10:29

    This will be an unmitigated disaster.

    The first accident/death will lead to a massive law suit which shut the whole thing down.

    We are 50 years away from safe driverless vehicles, currently it restricted to a few nerds in empty university car parks who still manage to crash 50% of the time.

  9. Louise 9 September, 2017 at 12:07

    If they are driver less they don’t have to worry about unsociable times. So get them to travel at the less congested time probably about 1am – 5am in the morning. They could just cruise along at 50mph (more fuel efficient and more time to react) . You can travel 200miles between those times. That’s roughly London to Manchester without any breaks (which they wouldn’t need). May need to be lit motor ways though.

    In regards to a turn off. Why are you in the 2nd lane over taking if yours is the next turn off? There’s normally plenty of signs indicating this. This is no different to a line of trucks/lorries/slow cars that occur currently. Slow down and go back into the 1st lane or better yet if you cannot over take in time just sit behind them until till your turnoff like I and many other people do.

    Have signs warning motorbikes and bikes that they are automatic please do not over take untill it’s save to over take them all. 2bh as said above if it was in the middle of the night less issues with this.

    Have a heart monitor on the driver any abnormal rates for them have all the trucks pull over on the hard shoulder or in designated safe spaces such as car parks. If a heart attach could automatically call an ambulance. This would still be cheaper than 3 drivers.

    Google have been running self driving cars for years now in cities and town areas. Majority of crashes where due to other car uses. Many who did not break at all after the car slowly stopping. Some were due to failures of the cars, electronically or physical failures. On the whole they are better than young or reckless drivers. I my self have nearly had a fatal accident due to idiots overtaking round a blind corner. One missed me by cm’s, that person is probably still in the road and others like him.

    I’m not saying their perfect but surely we should try them out since we don’t have the infostructure for light rail yet (maybe in the future).
    Start slow night shifts motorway only easy junctions with a human to do the towns and less straight roads. As technology develops increase what it can do. Many people already trust auto parking. The more we use it and invest it in. The faster we will develop as more money will be put into the industry.

  10. John 9 September, 2017 at 12:11

    I do not believe that we are 50 years away from driverless vehicles – probably 10 -15 years before it takes off fully and perhaps another 5 or 10 before the political decision is made to take out the weak link in the chain to reduce the high number of RTA fatalities – i.e. to completely ban careless, tired, incompetent, selfish, competitive, aggressive human beings from being anywhere near the controls of all vehicles of any type – except perhaps military vehicles engaged in combat where human unpredictability cannot be fully calculated by the enemy’s Army or Navy artificially intelligent systems.

  11. Steve 9 September, 2017 at 13:25

    The real driver in most of this technology is not safety, convenience or the environment but the transfer of benefit or profit to a different, usually smaller, group of people. It is debatable as to whether this is a good or bad thing, but justification is not usually the first thing on the agenda.

  12. Gazzerjay 9 September, 2017 at 13:42

    When I was in the Army, when we were in convoy we always held a minimum 20-30 metre distance between trucks to allow for other traffic to safely pass and have somewhere to slot in when encountering oncoming traffic, or when approaching exit roads. We also had signs displaying the fact we were in convoy so please pass carefully. We rarely applied brakes to accommodate the occasional impatient driver. My concerns with the automatic convoy system listed would be what would happen if the first driver was the one needing to leave the convoy and the second driver was only 4-10 metres behind and not ready to take back control after sitting there for the past 2 hours; and what happens when the first truck encounters an oily or icy surface which requires an emergency adjustment to maintain control. Is he going to instantly hand control back to the other vehicles? Will the other truck drivers be alert enough to respond to an unidentified emergency situation, especially after doing nothing for an hour, or more? Until these conditions have been assessed and effectively addressed, so that other road users know what their actions need to be. I can only pray that no-one gets injured.Finally, in the event of a serious accident, which driver is going to be held responsible? The lead vehicle or the one actually involved? Remember, even a minor injury on a road will cause an increase to insurances and travel times.

  13. Rayval 9 September, 2017 at 14:40

    If it wasn’t for innovation and new technology you would not have the computer you using to write rubbish, if you check out air crash investigation and all the other accidents you would see one major factor that cause these issues. Human is not great at doing repetitive task and goes into auto pilot which lead to accidents, computers on the other hand is great at doing task like that. If you remove the human element then you will have less accidents, less traffic jams and a more efficient road.

    I classify myself as a great driver but when i drive for 3 – 4 hours i have to stop and take break, once autonomous cars become available and affordable i will definitely get one and when there are domestic robot comes i will get one also.
    I embrase technology it makes my life more easier and leave me free to do other things.

  14. Martin 12 September, 2017 at 15:52

    @Steve

    “This will be an unmitigated disaster.
    The first accident/death will lead to a massive law suit which shut the whole thing down.”

    Yeah remember when they tried to do cars and the first accident or death led to a massive law suit which shut the whole thing down and now nobody has a car. Remember when that happened? Because I sure as hell don’t

    “We are 50 years away from safe driverless vehicles, currently it restricted to a few nerds in empty university car parks who still manage to crash 50% of the time.”

    Except it’s not. “who still manage to crash 50% of the time” ? Really care to prove that? “currently it restricted to a few nerds in empty university car parks” Driverless cars are being run on real roads right now.

  15. HighSide 14 September, 2017 at 14:55

    I don’t see the point, what is the ultimate goal? To move goods from A to B as efficiently as possible surely.

    If that’s the case, the government need to invest in a better rail infrastructure/system. A rail system that allows the movement of the containers alone (not the whole truck like the channel tunnel).

    What is the cost per mile and capacity of 3 lane motorway and a mile of electrified railway?

    I can see the governments reluctance however, they must get a huge tax income from all the road hauliers.

  16. Duncan MacDonald 13 October, 2017 at 09:54

    I recall back to when the one particular supermarket’s Artic lorries were limited to 45 MPH on the A9, and the huge traffic jams that built up behind them. Whilst the supermarket lorry may have been cruising along at an economical 45 MPH and producing lower emissions, the build up of vehicles behind them were all travelling at an uneconomical speed over a longer period of time, producing more. It was human nature, watching drivers concertinaing back and fro as their drivers tried to press on. That slow speed convoy produced benefits for the supermarket but had a negative and frustrating impact on all others unfortunate enough to be caught behind them. I witnessed some hairy overtaking as drivers tried to make up lost time.

    I take it that we are only talking about having convoy systems om motorways? Or perhaps dual carriageways as well? I sense the thin end of the wedge here, where we all sleep walk into ‘best practice’, waking up one day to realise that the convoy systems are operating on most roads, with the convoy system being used to regulate traffic speeds. Whilst we will all have to say that this is a good thing, there goes our freedom of choice, and you’ll soon realise that going from A to B can only be done at the same speed as the slowest convoy. Long distance Coaches may yet join the scheme as their insurers will prefer it.

    The ‘freedom of the road’ is certainly not a driving force here, economics are; and if we only focus on those, the laws of unintended consequences will become the new norm and we’ll knowingly have sleepwalked into it. Technical wizardry and automation can be great things, as for better or worse they have collectively brought us to where we are today, but all these advances need to be treated with a bit of thought – do we actually need the benefits of a certain advance – but want it just because we can have it?

  17. Rob 13 October, 2017 at 10:54

    a disaster looking for somewhere to happen…..
    recently saw someone dive across the path of two lorries from the middle lane to get to his / her exit…a mad move but one people are willing to make..they were lucky that time the drivers braked…but it was very close.
    and how do these platoons get on and off the Motorways….use normal roads where there is barely enough room to manouver as it is?
    Madness.

  18. Truckertee 13 October, 2017 at 16:33

    Duncan, LOL. I was one of those drivers, in and out of lay-byes like an incontinence sufferer trying to let traffic pass safely. However is this really a good idea? It sounds wonderful, convoys that will help the environment, save fuel and improve safety. The true beneficiary of all this technology will not be the trucker, it has to be the company because ultimately it’s about profits.. We are currently using trailers up to 15.6 m long with steering rear axles – that’s 52 ft in old money. Easy on motorways but a nightmare on normal roads. I’m sure business will push for even longer trailers in this “safe” brave new world. Enter the hackers, these bampots will have a field day trying to crash the systems. I’m sure the futuristic trucker – linked up with heart monitors etc (LOL) – will be able to immediately re-take control and bring the whole thing to a safe and successful conclusion. Yeah right. He will probably be hung out to dry. As for rail freight, it’s been tried and only on very long trips was found to be a profitable alternative. (note profitable). Time wasted in rail heads at both ends – meaning duplication of drivers, units and skeleton trailers – made it less profitable. That word again. New high tech trucks and driver training for the new systems would cost money, again eating into profits. Drivers unions would surely (or at least one would hope) demand pay rises for using the new technology again eating into profits. Winter conditions – as Gazzerjay noted – would knock the whole thing into a cocked hat. Also, no one has mentioned Owner drivers – one man operations – how do they fit into the system? Do they just tag onto a convoy? Will all the systems be compatible with each other? One would hope not because OTA upgrades done during the day for night fleets could interfere with day operating fleets and we’ve all experienced the PC upgrades that go wrong. Too many unanswered questions. On paper it sounds great but as for practice and profits ( because it has to be for companies to get involved ) I think we’re many years away. I’m glad I’m retired.

  19. Duncan MacDonald 13 October, 2017 at 16:59

    Exactly, Truckertee. Sad for you as the unfortunate driver, because you must have been aware what that policy meant to those in the following queue. At the time, I was so angry with the Supermarket chain that I wouldn’t shop with them on principle!
    There is depth in your comments, the like of which cannot be understood nor ‘felt in their water’ by the legislators. Profit is what will make or break a scheme like this and if too much operating detail gets in the way it will not be adopted. In practical, in-service trials, it will only work for those willing to believe in it. What indeed of the owner/driver or the driver who is lighter and wants to gain time? is he going to be stuck within the convoy or can he nip out of it thus spoiling the intention?
    I fear there is a lot of money being spent on the ideals of this technology but without those setting it up being aware of the in-use operational realities that the system will face. Cars are so popular because of the independence they lend but if trucks are going to have to wait for the right kind of convoy, there go the benefits. As you say, it’ll be down to profitability. Adding the cost of such a system to those of a driver – we’ll all end up paying for it, so why not simply just keep the driver?
    Can you imagine the mental stress of a driver that is sitting up there, not in control but waiting for the instant he is needed to take over control – waiting for a hacker to send him into a lane change or slamming the brakes on? or telling the system he is now driving on the right? I think if I saw one of these convoys, I’d want to give it a wide berth, but unfortunately, there isn’t the room for that in our congested roads. It will be a retrograde form of evolution, I fear.

  20. Anonymous 4 November, 2017 at 18:33

    “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.”

    Translation: ” Think of all the cash we`ll make! Who cares about the Safety aspects? We can always spin accidents and deaths away until we refine it better in 5 years!”

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