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.”
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.”
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.”