The UK government has unveiled plans to trial convoys of semi-automated trucks on motorways by the end of 2018.
Up to three wirelessly connected heavy good's vehicles (HGVs) will travel in convoy, with acceleration, braking and steering controlled by the lead vehicle, in a concept named ‘platooning’. However, each lorry will have a driver in the cab ready to retake control at any time.
The Department for Transport (DfT) and Highways England did not confirm where the first tests will be carried out but said the convoys can be expected on major roads by the end of 2018.
The trials were first announced last year but a lack of interest from industry when the government issued a tender to conduct them delayed progress.
The technology has been welcomed as a possible answer to a growing shortage of lorry drivers. The deficit is expected to hit 1.2m by 2022.
Transport minister Paul Maynard said the programme could prove a “win-win” situation for businesses and the public.
“Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion, 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,” he said.
Similar trials have been successfully carried out in the US and Europe. In 2016 platoons of connected trucks, made by six of Europe’s largest manufacturers, travelled from Germany, Sweden and Belgium to congregate in Rotterdam.
The UK government sent out tenders in April last year but the truck makers, who had just finished the pan-European project, were reluctant to sign up and said they were focused on further testing in their home markets.
Now the UK government has announced it has given £8.1m to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to run the tests, using Dutch lorry maker DAF Trucks, Germany courier group DHL and UK technology company Ricardo.
However, motoring organisations have concerns that the platoons could obscure signs and exits on busy roads, particularly since the hard shoulders on converted “smart” motorways are now being used for regular traffic.
Edmund King, president of the Automobile Association, said although initiatives to increase fuel efficiency and reduce congestion were welcome, he did not think lorry platooning on UK motorways was the answer.
“We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe … platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America,” he said.
“A platoon of just three HGVs can obscure road signs from drivers in the outside lanes and potentially make access to entries or exits difficult for other drivers.”
Richard Burnett, Road Haulage Association chief executive, said he would be following the trials very carefully.
“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,” he said.
“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 is the element of the concept gets the highest priority.”
Mark Perrin, head of transport and logistics at consultants Menzies, said: “The haulage industry is facing a significant driver shortage – a deficit of 1.2m by 2022 – and driverless trucks could form part of the solution.
“Unless the government begins to put more steps in place to attract new talent into the industry this labour deficit is likely to become much worse. Training programmes are intense and quite costly and the industry is crying out for additional financial incentives and support to help plug the gap.”
A study last year by Strategy& suggested that platooning technology can cut trucking costs by 28%
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