Motorway tests – possibly on the M6 - could prove driverless lorries consume less fuel and produce fewer pollutants.
Driverless lorries to travel very close together
Driverless lorries travelling in close-knit “platoons” look set to be tested on UK motorways in the near future, the Government confirmed. A platoon is a row of vehicles cruising a few metres apart whereby the leader – which has a human behind the wheel – controls the steering, brakes and throttle of every platoon member.
For the purpose of the tests, following members in the convoy will also have a human aboard to take manual control should there be a problem. Rumours suggest the experiments will take place on the M6.
Champions of such technology cite benefits such as lower fuel consumption and emissions. The lead vehicle pushes through untouched, thick, air which monumentally creates what is best perceived as a gap. Following lorries pass through the gap that has less resistance, so less effort is required and less fuel consumed.
Furthermore, proponents suggest that driverless vehicles could be safer. The on-board computer never gets distracted by passengers, irritated with other motorists, emotional or tired, for example. And travelling in close convoy – closer than humans can safely manage because of visibility issues – could save space on the road.
UK in unique position to benefit from driverless technology
A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “The UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of driverless cars.” She added: “We are planning trials of HGV (heavy goods vehicle) platoons and will be in a position to say more in due course”.
Obstacles to overcome, AA warns
AA Head of Roads and Transport Policy, Paul Watters, said there are obstacles to overcome before a driverless “utopia” becomes reality.
He said: “Motorists will certainly be very nervous about the prospect and will need considerable reassurance that it will be safe. Motorways are pretty congested in the United Kingdom - they are about the most congested in Europe - and there will be problems in how they access and exit the roads.”
Might a large convey block a slip road exit, for example. And how can a platoon of several lorries travelling as one join a motorway without forcing existing traffic into the middle/outer lanes? This could lead to delays and collisions as drivers fight for positions.
Successful test in Germany
Daimler recently tested a driverless lorry in Germany, with impressive results. Alan Stevens, from the Transport Research Laboratory, told the BBC: "I'm pleased that the trucks have proven safe enough to now undergo realistic road trials. Such trials are really the only way to understand the real economic and safety benefits”.