The UK government has committed to investing £8.1 million in ‘platooning’ trials for autonomous lorries on motorways.
According to the Department for Transport, the trials will involve three heavy goods vehicles deployed in a convoy on UK motorways. Each convoy will have its own platoon leader or lead vehicle, which will control the speed of the convoy.
The idea behind the platoon is that if the lead vehicle accelerates, the rest of the platoon follows, using elements of radar, GPS and Wi-Fi technology. Likewise if the lead vehicle brakes, the other vehicles should brake, too. Nevertheless, each vehicle will have its own human driver, ready to take over should complications arise.
The trial will be carried out in three phases, this being the first. It will be led by the Transport Research Laboratory, which has significant previous experience in this field, and has recently been working on a driverless shuttle program in Greenwich, London. The funding is provided by the Department for Transport and Highways England.
“Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion,” said transport minister, Paul Maynard. According to Sky News, the distance between the trucks is optimized to reduce air drag in order to cut fuel consumption and emissions, potentially by up to 20 percent.
“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,” Maynard added.
The government committed to these trials following an investigation into the feasibility of platooning heavy goods vehicles, something it claims it will do for any other autonomous technology before it gets the green light.
Criticisms and challenges
However, the AA has criticized the announcement, suggesting that the trial of lorries will present a risk to road users and offer little benefit. The Telegraph reports that Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “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.
“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.
“On the new motorways, without hard shoulders, lay-bys are every 1.5 miles. A driver in trouble may encounter difficulties trying to get into a lay-by if it is blocked by a platoon of trucks going past.”
Instead, the AA suggests putting the money into the advancement of electric vehicle technology.
Nevertheless, in a statement, the government noted that similar trials have already been successfully carried out in Europe – notably in the European Truck Platooning Challenge – and also the United States. The plans in the UK will not see platoons on major motorways until the end of 2018, however.
Russell Goodenough, client managing director for the transport sector at Fujitsu, told Internet of Business that trials of platooning lorries were a “positive move”, as the potential benefits from autonomous vehicles “are huge”.
“Evidence suggests that autonomous vehicles will reduce road accidents, as well as massively cutting delays and congestion,” Goodenough noted. “For consumers, connected and autonomous cars will free up time to relax or even work on the road, potentially boosting the country’s economic productivity.”
“However, as of 2017, the UK still has to move fast to become set-up and prepared for autonomous vehicles. There remain key challenges to be addressed, including how these vehicles will fit into the existing transport infrastructure and the measures that must be taken to ensure their cyber security.
“We’ve already seen cases of connected and autonomous vehicles and even road signs being hacked – safety of the driver and passengers must be of the utmost concern. Now it’s up to everyone in the transport sector to have these tricky conversations about when – and how – driverless vehicles will enter our transport systems, so that we can ensure that we realize the great benefits on offer. This pilot project is a significant step in the right direction.”