At Motor Vision we’ve followed the development and testing of autonomous, driverless vehicles closely as the technology draws ever closer to our roads.

It’s been a couple of years since I reported that the freightliner Inspiration truck was coming; the Daimler owned company was testing its Highway Pilot technology. The big difference being that Highway Pilot was designed to assist the driver rather than replace him – no giant anonymous Dune-style trucks looming in your rear view mirror then.

Highway Pilot

Well maybe I spoke to soon, as a contract has now been launched allowing TRL (Transport Research Laboratory) to carry out testing with what is being termed platoons of vehicles.

The platoon will consist of 3 lorries travelling in formation very close together. This would of course be completely alien to all HGV drivers out there; with braking distances of around 60 metres or more for a fully loaded HGV, safety demands that a sensible distance is kept between a juggernaut and your little Fiat up front.

self-driving platoon graphic

The difference here is that the lead lorry will be controlling the braking and acceleration of the following two vehicles, thus the ‘reaction times’ are – in theory – greatly reduced. It should work out that there is a negligible amount of time between the lead lorry braking and the following two responding.

Driving closer together has several advantages. Rather like cycling, the amount of energy needed to cut through the air is reduced when you are in the slipstream of a rider ahead using his energy to cut through the air. In the somewhat less streamlined case of a following lorry, being close behind a lead lorry should reduce fuel – energy – consumption in the same way. It will also reduce the overall footprint on the motorway that three lorries can take up.

self-driving platoon lorries uk testing

It has actually been suggested that a haulage company could potentially save anything from 4 – 10% in fuel costs. So the benefits are plain to see, yet the Government has been frustrated in the recent past by a reluctance of lorry manufacturers to want to take part. But time moves on and we get used to new ideas, and with the award of the contract to TRL we can safely presume that the trials will go ahead.

The AA has raised some safety concerns of course, and it would be wrong not to – these are large, heavy machines. One concern is not so much directed at the platoon, but at haphazard drivers who may want to squeeze into the tiny gap between the lorries. TRL say that current planning would be to break the convoy giving control back to the drivers who will be in each vehicle. Long-term, the plan would be to somehow make it clear that squeezing into the gap is not a very good idea.

self-driving platoon lorries testing uk

The trials are planned to commence on carefully selected areas of UK motorway with the obvious aim that the platoons will cause the least disruption to our famously impatient motorists…

While testing such platoons in the wide-open spaces of the USA and the autobahns of Germany is one thing, UK roads are notoriously winding and narrower with more junctions – and motorways don’t go right up to the recipient of your delivery’s doorstep.

It will be a curious thing to keep an eye on – how will such a project fare on our roads? It remains to be seen. As Transport Minister Paul Maynard says: “we have to make sure the technology is safe and works on our roads…”

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