The UK is planning to stage the world’s first ever real-world trial of heavy goods vehicles operating in a digitally linked platoon. This will involve specially adapted HGVs, connected through wireless technology so that the lead driver automatically controls the acceleration and braking for the ones behind. The tech is designed so that communication between the vehicles is instantaneous: when the lead vehicle brakes the following vehicles – two in this trial – instantly and safely brake by exactly the same amount, which means the lorries will be able to run much more closely together than would be safe in normal circumstances.
The benefits for safety and congestion are potentially significant, where automatic control could reduce unnecessary acceleration and braking, leading to a more efficient, safer use of the road.
To other road users ‘platoons’ will look like any other road freight, simply two more lorries in a line – although, the very observant might wonder why they are driving so closely together, but the benefits to the freight operator and other road users, are potentially huge. When high-sided vehicles travel closely together nose to tail, the leading lorry airflow envelopes the ones behind in its slipstream, so all the vehicles, including the leading one use less fuel to maintain the same speed. This could result in a potential fuel saving in the region of 10%. It is not hard to imagine what an effective 10% drop in fuel price would mean to road hauliers. And furthermore, using less fuel directly reduces harmful exhaust emissions including CO2 and NOx.
Where there won’t be any savings is in drivers. Digital does not mean “driverless”. Each vehicle will always have a driver in the cab and each driver will be able to detach from the platoon at any time for any reason. Because the vehicles are not ‘locked in’ to the platoon mode there need be no problems in blocking other traffic from slip roads or negotiating obstacles such as road works.
We know that the technology works through off-road trials in the UK and elsewhere. What is unique in this trial is testing the idea in real world conditions carrying real freight under real commercial pressure. Before the platoons make it onto the roads, though, they will have to satisfy the Department for Transport and Highways England that they can safely negotiate any situation that is thrown at them. The software currently being developed in safety track trials anticipates everything from extreme weather to the need for sudden evasive manoeuvres and is programmed to react to every situation as an ideal human driver would – a human driver who never makes a mistake!
Once safety testing and trial design have been completed, the on-road trial will begin, managed by a consortium led by TRL, with commercial partners DHL, DAF and Ricardo who are supplying the technology enabled lorries to transport the goods. There are no foregone conclusions. Nothing like this has been done before and the research study will be rigorous in assessing social costs and risks as well as commercial and social benefits. One way or the other it will place the UK at the forefront of smart mobility technology. And, if all goes well, it could be the start of a new era with independent commercial convoy fleets operating in the UK by the early 2020s. A dramatic change for road freight logistics but one which, hopefully, the rest of the road users will never really notice.
Richard Cuerden will be speaking in the Dynniq Dome on 9 November at 11:20am or find Richard and the rest of the TRL team at the TRL stand no. F10.
Richard Cuerden – TRL Academy Director