Government confirms UK trials for driverless lorries

12.00 | 17 March 2016 | | 11 comments

‘Platoons’ of driverless lorries will be trialled on Britain’s motorways, George Osborne confirmed in his 2016 Budget speech (16 March).

First reported earlier this month, the chancellor announced the funding for the trial as part of wider plans to improve the fuel efficiency of long-haul journeys.

Earlier this month Sky News said the trials would see ‘platoons’ of up to 10 driverless lorries travelling just ‘metres’ apart with a driver in the lead vehicle to control the steering, acceleration and braking of the convoy. Each vehicle will have a driver in the cab as a safety measure, who would regain control in the case of an emergency.

In 2011, the SARTRE project carried out the first demonstration of ‘platoon’ technology, while in Germany last year a driverless lorry developed by Daimler (pictured) was successfully tested on a public road for the first time.

In terms of location for the UK trail, the Telegraph reports that a stretch of the M6 near Carlisle has been earmarked as a potential test route, with the Daily Mail adding that the trial will start later this year.

In announcing the trials, the Government said it wanted the UK to be "a global centre for excellence in connected and autonomous vehicles".

Last month, it announced a further £20m of investment into the technology while transport minister Andrew Jones backed the opening of TRL’s ‘Living Lab’, designed to test autonomous vehicle technology.

It was also revealed in December 2015 that the Internet giant Google had held five meetings with the DfT in the last two years to discuss introducing driverless cars to the UK.

However, the announcement has received a lukewarm reception from Edmund King, president of the AA, who told BBC News he was doubtful the scheme was right for the UK.

Edmund King said: “The problem with the UK motorway network is that we have more entrances and exits than any other motorways in Europe or indeed the world, and therefore it’s very difficult to have a 44 tonne 10-lorry platoon, because other vehicles need to get past the platoon to enter or exit the road."

The RAC was a little more encouraging, welcoming the initiative ‘in principle’.

David Bizley, RAC chief engineer, said: “There are a number of significant benefits that are being forecast as a result of the introduction of driverless lorries, such as an average fuel reduction of around 10% and improved motorway capacity. It should also add to safety on the roads as there’s less opportunity for human error.

“But one of the main questions is really whether lorry platoons are appropriate for our motorway network, which is why the choice of the M6 in Cumbria for the trials is a good one because the junctions are few and far between and the traffic density is low compared with most stretches of motorway.

“So while this is a potentially welcome extension to the driverless technology we are seeing trialled in cars, it’s not clear yet whether it is something that would work in practice on the UK’s motorway network.”

Photo via Daimler



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    “I don’t like the idea of them travelling ‘just metres apart.”

    They already do. As do a great many vehicles in my experience. Coaches especially already seem to have some form of 2m automatic follow feature.

    steve, watford
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    Do we not already have these vehicles that are only metres apart carrying goods that save on fuel, called goods trains. We hear of all the billions of pounds of investment in HS2 & HS3 but only for passenger transport, why not invest in goods trains and keep these monsters off our roads?

    Jeff, Cumbria
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    At the risk of sounding pedantic, can I suggest that “lorries” which require a “driver” in the cab should not be referred to as “driverless lorries”.

    May I suggest that the term “auto-driven lorries” is far more accurate and avoids the contradiction and confusion implied with a driver-less lorry that requires a driver.

    Rod King, 20’s Plenty for Us
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    Something 180 metres in length, weighing 400 tonnes, and controlled by one man at the front has already been invented. It is called a railway train, and that is where it should remain – on the railway.

    Having the technology to make it happen is one thing, but ensuring that the rest of us can be safe around it is another thing entirely, as many of those who post here have identified.

    David, Suffolk
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    As Nick in Lancashire has intimated, these projects are more likely to be fueled by cost savings in wages more than road safety.

    Derek Reynolds, Salop.
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    Apparently the choice of the M6 is because the junctions are few and far between and low traffic density. Discussion in our office centred on avoiding the M6 for fear of being involved in the trial somehow. If that reduces the traffic flow further can the trial take place on the A27 so drivers will avoid it and the normal jams might go away.
    That said, 10 lorries of 16.5 metres length with small gaps between makes about 180 metres of 400 tonnes travelling at about 60 MPH. Ignoring the regular drivers who do charge across 3 lanes at the last minute to get off the motorway what will happen to the tourist who needs to see the signs which will be hidden by a 180 metre fence? Will we need bigger information signs or will we need satnavs that can identify convoys? Maybe we need to start with 2 in convoy, evaluate and slowly lengthen the “train” until we have an acceptable number. Might I suggest a maximum of 5 lorries?

    Peter City of Westminster
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    Regarding gaps at junctions for vehicles to get through to exit onto an off-slip then if we can remove the human failing of racing up to the junction as fast as possible in the third lane then realising the junction has been reached so having to then pull across with little regard for other road users by other vehicles being “driverless” then it should work OK shouldn’t it?

    Or human drivers could approach the junction at a reasonable speed, move into lane 1 in good time and exhibit a bit of patience and self control in the meantime? Probably too much to expect…..

    Regarding public finding of research into this technology, there are always choices to be made with finite funds and personally I can see this technology saving thousands in terms of driver’s wages, collision costs etc and I feel it is a worthwhile avenue to explore.

    Nick, Lancashire
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    Paul, the news release states that “a driver in the lead vehicle would control the steering, acceleration and braking of the convoy” therefore emergency braking by the lead driver would apply to all vehicles at the same time.

    The limiting factor would be the differences in brake/tyre performance between the vehicles and I would assume the gap between the vehicles would be sufficient to allow for varied performance in this way. However, too big a gap and other vehicles will try to fill it!

    Matt Staton, Cambridgeshire
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    Can’t wait to see how independent comfort breaks are catered for at service stations. Or will this be catered for in cab. But then there would be no driver ready to take control.

    Agree (0) | Disagree (0)

    I don’t like the idea of them travelling ‘just metres apart.’ What happens if the lead lorry has to brake in an emergency? Nor do I agree with the government’s obsession with driverless vehicles and the £millions being spent in times of supposed austerity, deficit and debt.

    Paul Biggs, Staffordshire
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    I would think that the gaps between vehicles could be automatically increased at junctions.

    Peter, Merseyside
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