Self-driving lorries are to be trialled on England’s motorways despite experts’ fears they could put safety at risk.
Up to three wirelessly connected HGVs will move in convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.
The scheme is expected to be tried on major roads next year for environmental reasons.
Driving in close convoy could see the front lorry push air out of the way, making the other vehicles more efficient and lowering their emissions. But the AA warned a ‘platoon’ of HGVs could obscure road signs for motorists and block access to slip roads.
The organisation’s Edmund King said: ‘A three-truck platoon is longer than half a Premier League football pitch. We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduced congestion but we are not yet convinced lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it.’
Similar trials have been carried out elsewhere in Europe and in the US but questions have been raised about the suitability of self-driving lorries in Britain
Similar trials have been carried out elsewhere in Europe and in the US but questions have been raised about the suitability of self-driving lorries in Britain.
Mr King added: ‘We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries. Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona but this is not America …
‘A platoon of just three HGVs can obscure road signs from drivers in the outside lanes and potentially make access to entries or exits difficult … A driver in trouble may encounter difficulties trying to get into a lay-by if it is blocked by a platoon of trucks going past.’
Transport minister Paul Maynard (pictured) said: ‘We are investing in technology that will improve people’s lives’
The Government has provided £8.1million for the trials, which are expected to take place on major roads by the end of 2018. All lorries in the tests will have a driver ready to take control if required.
Transport minister Paul Maynard said: ‘We are investing in technology that will improve people’s lives. Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion. But first we must make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads.’ The project is part-funded by Highways England and will be carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory.
Test track research will determine the appropriate distance between lorries and on which roads trials will take place. Mr King welcomed plans for initial off-road tests, rather than immediately starting a pilot on the M6 as originally intended.
RAC Foundation director Steve Gooding said: ‘Streams of close-running HGVs could provide financial savings on long-distance journeys, but on our heavily congested motorways – with stop-start traffic and vehicles jostling for position – the benefits are less certain.’ Richard Burnett, of the Road Haulage Association, added that while there were benefits to platooning, ‘safety has to come first’.
Ministers say that if the trials are successful, the technology could have major benefits for motorists and businesses – such as lowering emissions.
But last night a Labour source said: ‘Convoys of lorries risk life and limb on our packed motorway network. We need to keep Britain trucking but keep our roads safe for all. Any new initiative like this must put safety first. It is deeply worrying that motoring organisations warn drivers may not be able to see motorway signs thanks to these large convoys … Ministers must consider these warnings before they go ahead with such a scheme.’
Ministers say that if the trials are successful, the technology could have major benefits for motorists and businesses – such as lowering emissions. Pictured: A driverless car
The testing follows a government-funded feasibility study which recommended a trial to examine the benefits and viability of platooning.
RAC roads policy spokesman Nicholas Lyes said signs must notify motorists if platoons are on the carriageway, as the convoys ‘could be a disconcerting sight in a high-speed environment’.
He added: ‘It is vital system checks and processes reduce any likeliness of a catastrophic breakdown among any of the lorries. The principle offers clear benefits … However, the safety of all other roads users must always be the priority.’
Jim O’Sullivan, of Highways England, said: ‘The trial has the potential to demonstrate how greater automation of vehicles can deliver improvements in safety, better journeys for road users and reduction in vehicle emissions.
‘Investing in this research shows we care about those using our roads, the economy and the environment, and safety will be integral.’
The trial will be in three phases, the first focusing on the potential for platooning in the UK. Each phase will begin only if there is robust evidence it can be done safely.
TRL’s Rob Wallis said the firm has the ‘practical and technical knowledge’ to put the convoys on roads safely.
He added: ‘The UK has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialling connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment.’