The development of autonomous driving technologies is intended to be life-changing in many ways, but one of the most significant, with the eventual potential to turn a whole human workforce into a bottleneck of supervisors, is the use of self-driving convoy lorries for freight transport.
From 2018, the technology will be tested live on British motorways – albeit in a small, controlled and highly human-centred way – with small convoys of self-driving lorries making test runs to iron out any inconsistencies in the theory and see how the self-driving vehicles perform in real-world situations.
A contract has been awarded to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out the tests of vehicle ‘platoons’ of up to three lorries a time, traveling in formation, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.
The lead vehicle will be fully controlled by a human driver, and will then wirelessly communicate braking and acceleration instructions to its subordinate vehicles.
This wireless communication will allow for one of the initial benefits of self-driving to be realised – the lorries will be driving more closely together than would be safe for human-controlled vehicles, which – by lowering wind resistance – delivers fuel economies that could then theoretically be passed on to consumers. The vehicles are of course only permitted to drive closer together than human drivers because they are able to react more quickly to braking instructions than humans can.
The plan, which has been approved by the government are now expected to go ahead without a hitch, despite, for instance, similar plans being announced in 2016, then scuppered by the refusal of some European lorrymakers to participate in platooning trials.
The TRL says it will carefully choose sections of motorway for its trials, taking the number of junctions and traffic into account. Despite the self-driving nature of the trials, all the lorries will have drivers behind the wheel who will be able to take control and break up the convoy to let other drivers join or leave the motorway if there is an obstruction.