Truck platooning trials to begin in the UK

| Transport

Scania HGV equipment used for platooning
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The DfT has enrolled TRL to lead a major project to test truck platooning as the next step in sustainable transport.

The UK’s Department for Transport (DfT) announced this morning that the Government has earmarked over £8 million for trials in truck platooning, the process of synchronising vehicle control to enable goods vehicles to travel in close formation and reap the associated aerodynamic benefits for improved fuel consumption.

In the trials for the UK, a maximum of three HGVs will travel in convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle. Platooning, as this is known, is not a new technology and trials have already taken place in Europe with the involvement of local Governments and specialist vehicle manufacturers. With some maturity already existing in the control and telecommunications technology necessary to make platooning effective and safe, the time is now right to begin trials in the UK.

UK industry cooperation

To conduct these trials, the DfT has enlisted the help of the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), which will lead a consortium of partners including vehicle manufacturer DAF, vehicle technology company Ricardo and logistics giant, DHL.

The trial will be carried out in 3 phases, with the first focusing on the potential for platooning on the UK’s major roads. Initial test track based research will help decide details such as distance between vehicles and on which roads the tests could take place.

According to TRL, the trials will collate the evidence required to understand issues such as fuel efficiency and reduced emissions, safety, acceptance by drivers and other road users, implications for future infrastructure and the commercial case for adoption.

TRL’s Chief Executive, Rob Wallis is confident that the consortium has the expertise to bring platooning to UK roads. “TRL and its consortium have the practical and technical knowledge gained from previous projects to understand what is required to put a connected vehicle platoon on to UK roads safely and the team are now taking that expertise and uniquely applying it within live traffic operations,” he said.

Commenting on the wide range of benefits that platooning can potentially deliver, TRL’s Academy Director, Richard Cuerden said, “The trials will highlight the services that platooning may offer road users and whether these can safely contribute to a reduction in vehicle emissions, improved journeys and greater economic prosperity.”

The on-road trials will form part of regular DHL logistical operations and are expected to take place in 2018, following the successful completion of a rigorous programme of driving simulations, driver training and test track trials over the coming months.

Freight industry benefits

The body representing Britain’s hauliers, The Freight Transport Association (FTA) is in favour of platooning to bring improvements to the environment and operating costs. The organisation is therefore eager for the trials to become a reality.

The FTA’s head of national policy, Christopher Snelling believes it’s imperitive for the Government to move forward quickly with the trials to realise the 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,” he said.

Delivering environmental benefits safely

With the announcement of the platooning trial plans by the DfT, the UK’s Transport Minister Paul Maynard commented on its ability to improve people’s lives as well as providing benefits to business but not at the cost of road safety. “We must first make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads, and that’s why we are investing in these trials,” he said.

Reaction from road user organisations was varied. Road safety organisation Brake threw an anchor into the tarmac by saying such trials should be abandoned in favour of moving freight off the roads onto the railways. However, given the road freight is likely to continue unabated, the organisation softened its stance with spokesman Jason Wakeford saying, “This rigorous trial is needed to prove whether the technology really can provide the safety and environmental benefits which are claimed.”

At the top of the Institute of Advanced Motoring’s (IAM) concerns is the effect of potential cybercrime on the safety of truck platoons. “Motorways are our safest roads and that record must not be jeopardised by any rush towards autonomous technology,” said Neil Greig, the organisation’s director of policy and research.

He also called upon the trial to examine real world interactions between platoons and other road users, asking how other road users will know when a truck is in a platoon and how will platoons affect road sign visibility and the use of slip roads.

“The pilot study will need to answer these questions as 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,” said Greig.

Safety will be high on the agenda throughout the trials, an assurance expressed by TRL, the DfT and Highways England.

According to Jim O’Sullivan, Highways England Chief Executive, “Investing in this research shows we care about those using our roads, the economy and the environment, and safety will be integral as we take forward this work with TRL.”

Jonathan Newell

Jonathan Newell is a graduate of Loughborough University and has three decades of experience in engineering as well as broadcast and technical journalism.
Jonathan Newell

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