One of the more eye raising announcements, although not completely unexpected, from the recent budget was George Osborne’s confirmation that the first trials of driverless HGVs are set to be carried out on UK motorways this coming year. It was something that had been reported by the Times and BBC at the beginning of the month, with the Chancellor making it official in his statement to the Commons.
How will it work?
The trials are set to take place on some of the quieter stretches of the M6 around the Carlisle/Cumbria region and will consist of a convoy – or platoon – of around 10 automated, driverless HGVs led by a driver operated vehicle at the front.
The driverless HGVs, it is claimed, will be able to drive at close distances behind each other at regulated speeds – something that is estimated to provide excellent efficiency in terms of fuel consumption. This is based upon the ‘drafting’ theory where the vehicles in behind the leader feel less resistance from the wind, resulting in lower energy expenditure and thereby, less fuel consumption. Previous trials on this type of platoon driving have shown significant fuel reductions in such a scenario.
Improved Efficiency & Productivity
Adding to this claim, the driverless trucks are hoped to help with overall fleet efficiency in the future. Not only will fuel consumption be lowered but, with the ability to be on the road around the clock, there is the notion that delivery times and productivity can also find additional improvements.
While the idea of futuristic fleets of HGVs on automatic pilot does offer some theoretical benefits, such a concept also opens up some practical, economical and indeed, ethical issues that requires examination.
In the short term of the trial, there have been questions raised within the transport sector already. President of the AA Edmund King has questioned whether such platoons were really feasible on the UK road network, given that it has the largest number of exits and entrances onto motorways of any country in Europe. The concern being that there would be a logistical issue with 10 HGVs all trying to leave or join a motorway at the same time – along with the other vehicles trying to do the same at the same time.
Should driverless HGVs have a future on the roads of the UK, there are other questions that also need looking into; especially on legal, insurance and moral grounds.
What, for instance, if the HGV found itself in a situation where an accident was unavoidable? Would it be able to make a decision which would minimise the impact or protect the safety of other parties involved in the accident? Driverless trucks may well indeed be a perfectly safe addition to the roads, but there cannot possibly a 100% accident proof solution – which opens up questions around who has liability.
Driverless HGVs are not new
We’ve yet to see a driverless HGV on the roads of the UK, but that’s not to say the concept hasn’t been around for a while. It was even the subject of a joke upon which an episode of the Simpsons was based, back in 1999.
In the real world, driverless truck trials have taken place over the past couple of years on the highways of Nevada with the Daimler Freightliner leading the way. And, in October of last year, Daimler tool their vehicle to Germany for extended trials on the Autobahn. Using a combination of video, GPS and radar the vehicles can drive and navigate at set speeds to pre-programmed destinations. However, while this is fine for larger stretches of road such as motorways, navigating through busier, built up streets would likely still be an obstacle more suited to the control and reactions of a skilled and fully trained HGV driver.
There seems little doubt that driverless HGVs will feature in some way in the future of the industry, but a fully driverless fleet of lorries remains a long way off with the skills and wherewithal of a trained, and most definitely human, HGV driver very much still in demand.