Recently the Department of Transport published a feasibility study on heavy vehicle platoons on UK roads, along with the announcement that trials are set to take place on UK roads in the near future. The Transport Research Laboratory will carry out the trial, with £8.1 million funding from the Department for Transport and Highways England.
There are lots of headlines grabbing people’s attention causing concerns that ‘driverless’ lorries will soon be on our roads, however that claim is not quite true.
What we will be getting on our roads shortly, is a number of HGVs fitted with new technology that will give them the ability to ‘platoon’; the trucks will be connected by wifi and will be able to drive much closer together, accelerating and braking at the same time.
There are 6 defined levels of vehicle autonomy ranging from Level 0 - a standard vehicle to Level 5 - no human intervention is required.
The ‘driverless’ truck proposals only come in at Level 2 at the highest, as there will always be a driver present in each of the trucks ready to take control at any point; so still a long way away from full automation.
Similar technology exists on our roads. Many new cars are fitted with lane assist and automatic accelerating/braking features, however this will be the first time that this technology will be tested on the roads with HGVs.
What Is The Point?
As Christopher Snelling, the Freight Transport Association’s Head of Nation Policy, said “Platooning could be an innovative means of reducing fuel use, so saving costs and reducing carbon and air quality emissions... travelling at constant speeds can help improve traffic flows and reduce tailbacks.”
Tests of this technology have proven successful in other European countries and in the USA and have proven to reduce fuel consumption by up to 15%, prevent human error causing accidents and reduce congestion.
Lower fuel consumption means lower costs to hauliers, potentially passing savings to the consumer and cleaner air due to lower overall CO2 output. Reductions in congestion equally will reduce CO2 output as the amount of time people are spending on the roads is reduced.
The Potential Downside
The AA has voiced their concerns on a number of issues. The length of the platoon is one; three articulated lorries with 10m in-between them will be approximately the length of a football pitch and, arguably, not suitable for the UK’s already congested motorways. Edmund King, President of the AA said “We have more exits and entries on our motorways than any other motorway system... the platoon would have to break up at entries or exits or indeed, pull over, and that could cause problems for drivers in other cars trying to get on the motorway or get off.”
It is also argued that the savings in fuel offer little to no real environmental benefit, and instead invest in electric vehicles.
The report itself addressed some of these concerns. While a platoon would be long, there will always be a driver present and ready to take control should an issue arise.
The platoons are designed to break up at junctions and roundabouts and reform again on main straights – which if anything would cause only the same conjunction as there is currently on the roads.
Many companies have only recently switched to Euro 6 compliant, diesel trucks. As these are very expensive investments, many companies simply wouldn’t be able to afford to make the switch to electric lorries, even if the technology existed. The potential for retrofitting these Euro 6 compliant lorries with platooning technology might not be the end solution, but it could be a stepping stone toward a much more environmentally friendly fleet.
The benefits/effects of full automation will not yet be felt by hauliers and drivers; drivers will always need to be present thus not saving on reduced wages – but conversely, at least for now, drivers still have job security. Furthermore there will be no effect on drivers’ hours regulations – a driver must always be prepared, so the rear driver won’t be able to benefit from rest period while still on the move.
What this research will provide is valuable information to address these concerns and answer questions on how technology might benefit UK business, road safety and the environment in future. If it is successful then it is a positive step for the UK to remain at the forefront of technology.
For further information on driverless lorries and how they may affect your business or any other regulatory query, please contact a member of the Crime and Regulatory team in Cambridge on 01223 411421 or Milton Keynes 01908 202150.