Muted industry response to platooning

The industry has reacted with caution to news last week that the government has approved motorway trials for autonomous trucks.

Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has been awarded a contract to test platooning, with up to three lorries travelling in formation, reacting autonomously to the acceleration and braking of the first one.

All the vehicles in the convoy will have a driver behind the wheel, but only the driver of the lead vehicle will use the pedals, with the other drivers required to steer only. It’s hoped this will allow the lorries to travel much closer together, reducing wind resistance and thus saving up to 10% on fuel.

TRL will begin the trials on a test track before moving them to public roads towards the end of the year. It hasn’t said yet which roads will be identified for testing.

However, while autonomy is an inevitable destination, and platooning has already been tested in Germany, Japan and the US, not all within the industry are convinced it will work effectively on the congested motorways of the UK.

The AA:

Sir Edmund King, president of the AA, said, ‘We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion but we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it. 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.’

The RAC:

Director Steve Gooding said, ‘Streams of close-running HGVs could provide financial savings on long-distance journeys, but on our heavily congested motorways, with stop-start traffic and vehicles jostling for position, the benefits are less certain.’

Freight Transport Association:

Christoper Snelling, head of national policy, said, ‘Platooning could be an innovative means of reducing fuel use so saving costs and reducing carbon and air quality emissions. Driving closely together, platoons of trucks take up less space on the road, and travelling at constant speeds can help improve traffic flows and reduce tailbacks. However, the system has to be shown to be safe on the roads and to deliver the promised benefits. The sooner the trial takes place, the sooner the UK logistics industry, which represents 11% of the UK’s non-financial business economy, can know if this will be the right route for the future. Platooning could be a real opportunity to optimise logistics on the road – we need to know if it is the way forward as soon as possible.’

Brake:

Jason Wakeford, director of campaigns, said, ‘Rather than platooning lorries on already congested UK roads, the Government should instead cut emissions and improve public safety by moving more freight from road to rail. Each freight train takes around 60 HGVs off the road network. This rigorous trial is needed to prove whether this technology really can provide the safety and environmental benefits which are claimed.’

IAM RoadSmart:

Neil Greig, director of policy and research, said, ‘Motorways are our safest roads and that record must not be jeopardised by any rush towards autonomous technology. The pilot study may answer these questions but car and motorbike users will need a lot of reassurance that the systems will not block the inside lane with an extra-long ‘wall’ of trucks. The technology exists to implement platooning but in the real world it must deliver real economic benefits to outweigh our safety worries.’