The Government has committed £8.1m to finance trials of semi-autonomous “platooning” lorries.
The system involves a “platoon leader” driving a heavy goods vehicle at the head of a small convoy, with the following trucks, or “drones”, being piloted by computers.
The trucks drive close behind one another and are linked electronically, communicating via radar, GPS and wifi.
The driver of the lead truck determines the route, speed and position, and controls acceleration, braking and steering for the entire convoy.
The distance between the trucks is optimised to reduce air drag, cutting fuel consumption and emissions – potentially by up to 20%.
Roads minister Paul Maynard announced the funding for a pilot scheme during a visit to DAF’s Leyland truck plant in Lancashire.
“We believe this system has the potential not just to save fuel and therefore emissions, but also to reduce congestion on our roads”, he said.
“It’s potentially win-win all round, and this investment is to ensure we are at the forefront of this new technology.”
The results of trials in the US, Sweden and Germany have been positive. But some experts have concerns that Britain’s roads may not be ideal for so-called “driverless” lorries.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “I think the real problem in Britain is that we have some of the most congested motorways in the world.
“We have more exits and entries on our motorways than any other motorway system.
“So what that means is either 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.”
DAF has been working on the technology for some time, and has been awarded the contract for the trials, which will be monitored and evaluated by the independent Transport Research Laboratory.
Richard Cuerden from TRL said: “The primary issue is one of safety, but these trials will hopefully allow us to collect a lot of data about not just the technology, but the behaviour of both the truck drivers and other road users.”
The drone vehicles are not unmanned, they will have drivers to take control in case of emergency, and to enter and leave the platoons.
Those drivers will have monitors to show them the platoon leader’s view of the road ahead to keep them in the “information loop”.
The first trials will be on test tracks. But the first platooning vehicle tests on major roads are scheduled to start before the end of next year.
Later in the trials, delivery firm DHL will join the scheme to test the real world practicality and potential benefits of platooning.