Friday 22 September 2017

DfT platooning trial sparks national debate

The news announced last month that the Department for Transport (DfT) is to fund a trial of platooning lorries on UK roads was received with varying degrees of enthusiasm from the road transport industry and beyond.

The £8.1 million government project will see trial platoons of up to three HGVs travelling in sync on major roads, with braking and acceleration controlled via wireless technology by the lead vehicle, by the end of 2018.

The trial has been variously reported to the public by the mainstream media in language avoided by the DfT announcement – namely, involving ‘driverless’, ‘partially driverless’ or ‘self-driving’ trucks.

This is despite the fact that all vehicles in the platoon will have drivers at the wheel who will be ready to take full control should it become necessary – details sometimes buried in the small print some way below arguably misleading headlines.

While many in the sector and beyond agreed that the trials would be welcome due to the potential efficiency gains, some also expressed safety reservations, as well as concern that the benefits and suitability of platooning for the UK road network were yet to be proven.

In theory, lorries driving closer together allow the front truck to push air out of their path, leading to improved fuel economy and lower emissions, with consequent improvements in air quality.

Congestion would also be eased, advocates contend, while there are also potential safety benefits in that the trailing vehicles would react faster to a braking manoeuvre by the lead truck than human drivers are able to.

Transport minister Paul Maynard said the technology would “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 he added that the purpose of the trials was to “make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads” – and the DfT has emphasised that each phase of the process will only kick off once “robust evidence” is available that it can be done safely.

The platoons will be subject to initial research on test tracks, to help ascertain the optimum distance between vehicles, and the kinds of roads on which the real-world tests could occur.

The trial will be spearheaded by the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), whose chief executive Rob Wallis said the trials offered “an unprecedented  opportunity to lead the world in trialling connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment.”

He said: “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.

“The team are now taking that expertise and uniquely applying it within live traffic operations.”

DAF on board

DAF Trucks has been named as a participant in the trial, together with partners TNO (the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research), Ricardo and DHL.

The firm says that platooning technology can respond “25 times quicker than a top sports player”, while also allowing cars to join the traffic or leave the motorway safely, even when crossing a truck platoon.

DAF management board member with responsibility for product development, Ron Borsboom, said: “The trials will enrich our understanding and knowledge of the benefits that platooning can deliver, whilst at the same time we can support the DfT  by building evidence of how platooning can improve transport efficiency.”

But he added that a great deal had to be evaluated in terms of legislation, liability and acceptance by the public.

“Let me be clear: It goes without saying that there is still a lot of technical development ahead of us before we might be able to introduce platooning to the market. This trial, however, is an important and necessary step we need to take.”

Mr Borsboom continued: “Every truck needs a man or woman in the cab. On secondary roads or in urban areas, the driver needs to be in control of the truck.

“Truck platooning is predominantly an efficiency solution for long haul operations on main roads and motorways, but even then drivers will be specially trained to take control if necessary and deploy other work-related activities.

“Truck platooning is not the beginning of the end of the truck driving profession. It relieves the workload of the person behind the wheel. Traffic is getting busier and busier, and more demanding for the driver. Intelligent systems, such as truck platooning, are going to help the driver to cope with those demands.”

Industry response

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) emphasised the “cost, congestion and carbon” benefits of the scheme, and said it was imperative that the government moved forward quickly with the plans to allow the industry to prepare for the future.

“Driving closely together, platoons of trucks take up less space on the road, and travelling at constant speeds can help improve traffic flows and reduce tailbacks,” said FTA national policy head Christopher Snelling.

“However, the system has to be shown to be safe on the roads and to deliver the promised benefits.  The sooner the trial takes place, the sooner the UK logistics industry, which represents 11 per cent of the UK’s non-financial business economy, can know if this will be the right route for the future.”

Nigel Base, commercial vehicle manager at the Society of Motor Manufacturers & Traders (SMMT), said the technology would “revolutionise transport and logistics”.

He added that: “while some organisations have highlighted the importance of ensuring these trials are undertaken safely, it is undeniable that the introduction of autonomous technology will undoubtedly make our roads much safer, reducing accidents and saving thousands of lives.”

Road Haulage Association (RHA) 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.

“The RHA will be following the trials very carefully and will be making its views heard on the consultation that follows.”

Driver trainer and provider System Group issued a “cautious welcome” to the trials, saying that the sector needed to embrace the latest technology but that safety should always be paramount.

Director Colin Gordon pointed out that: “Our roads have fewer lanes and more junctions closer together than where [previous Europe and US] trials were conducted, so driver safety on entry and egress are serious issues for consideration.

“From a fuel efficiency, reducing congestion point of view we are keen to have those trials to see if they work well. But the safety issue is the biggest concern.”

Safety first

Jason Wakeford, campaigns director for the road safety charity Brake, said: “Rather than platooning lorries on already congested UK roads, the government should instead cut emissions and improve public safety by moving more freight from road to rail. Each freight train takes around 60 HGVs off the road network.

But he added: “This rigorous trial is needed to prove whether this technology really can provide the safety and environmental benefits which are claimed.”

Motoring organisations also expressed some safety concerns.

While the RAC was generally supportive of the trial, roads policy spokesperson Nicholas Lyes said it was: “vital that every step is taken to ensure that the public are made fully aware of the details of these tests to give them confidence that the technology will be safe in practice.”

He also argued that drivers should be made aware through signage that platoons were operating on the carriageway, stating that: “seeing manned lorries driving very close to each other could be a disconcerting sight in a high-speed environment.”

“It is vital that system checks and processes also reduce any likeliness of a catastrophic breakdown amongst any of the lorries,” he added.

Meanwhile Edmund King, president of the AA, warned that on new motorways without hard shoulders, drivers may struggle to access the emergency lay-bys situated every 1.5 miles if blocked by a platoon – and that rows of trucks driving in close proximity could also prevent drivers in the outside lanes from being able to see road signs.

He said: “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.”

6 comments

  1. Paul Crompton says:

    I am writing to my MP about this as its potentially lethal, if somebody drives close by with a frequency hopping jammer and suitable hacking equipment ? i.e terrorists /criminals .No need so say more

  2. Charles Burke says:

    If the trucks are travelling very close to each other in order to prevent wind drag , they will be too close to let cars get between them. This will cause problems when other vehicles try to access the motor way and it will also prevent other drivers from seeing the road signs. I would think the drivers of the trailing vehicles could be in trouble if they had to take over steering or braking without warning as they would need to be concentrating very hard in order to be prepared for such a situation. It sems to me that the answer to the need to reduce congestion would be to add another trailer. This could be added and detached at designated places and would not mean these vehicles running on roads which are unsutable for long vehicles.

  3. John Eastman says:

    No mention of the ‘changing lane’ on M ways hazard. The lead driver needing to indicate for ‘3’ vehicles instead of one, and upon returning to a lane ‘when’ does the driver pull back in safely?
    Congestion at exit roundabouts from M ways will be interesting. Are the 2nd & 3rd vehicles then needing to ‘team up’ on route?
    Visualise a ‘platoon’ in the nearside lane being over taken by a ‘platoon’ in the second lane, the ‘outfit is then ‘6’ vehicles long! If that is not a hazard for other motorists……with another road user looking to exit at the next slip road, provided the sign can be seen. Add to this the need to return to a lane safely!
    Refueling should interesting!
    If these vehicles are going to be limited to M ways, what is the point?
    Trials held at MIRA some years ago proved that adding a trailer can be achieved safely, turning within the current regulation arcs/circles. This actually addresses the shortage of drivers also as well as fuel and emissions!
    Technology is fantastic. But is this really the way to go. Australia, America, Sweden, Africa yes.
    Britain????

    .

  4. Peter D Blackburn says:

    Has anyone looked at what is happening now on the M-ways..?, many times at peak hours in major conurbation areas any driver can witness current units +trailers and rigids driving so close any normal Van or car simply cannot take the risk of getting in between the HGV sandwich, yes,.. alright we know drivers are on the metal and are restricted by hours, but here in the UK how will this utopian view of future transport benefit all road users…surely a far safer and far easier concept would be multiple trailers say (3 0r 4) with one tractor plus co driver, expand service areas to give true A road access to such service areas so contractors could run in from an A road collect one trailer so as to deliver such cargo, its not really Rocket Science to see that could be done and acceptable more by the Public at Large, lets face it current Horse Power of upward of 500HP are now a common site on the entire road system so this easier and more acceptable moving of multiple trailers of say 2/3/4 trailer per HGV artic, that would cut down on fuel and so called possibilities of Rogue hackers send a Platoon to Armageddon.
    Peter Blackburn ex haulier UK to Germany.

  5. Mick Symon says:

    I don’t doubt, in time technology will make this happen.
    But I don’t believe I will see it operating within my last five years of working life.
    Two queries come to mind-
    What driver will be stupid enough to lead two robotic artics- bad enough with a 35 tonne trailer at your back. The industry conned drivers from gross weights increasing from 32, 38, 41 then 44 tonnes and not one brass penny for the driver for that extra responsibility. What wage then for being in charge of three artics?

    Has ANY insurance company quoted a premium for such a truck combination? I think it would negate any cost savings of drivers wages.

  6. steve d says:

    Hhmmmmm i would have thought that in the UK at least one operator would be very unlikely to send 3 trucks together to the same town, surely developing road/rail cargo wagons (see youtube megaswing unloading) and reinstating towns freight rail sideings would be better, greener less congesting and cheaper for all? The ideas are already viable but need a different approach from councils rail companies and government, it wont work for all but it would work for a lot of general haulage traffic.

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