Road safety stakeholders have been largely supportive of the news that small convoys of ‘partially driverless lorries’ will undergo trials on British roads by the end of 2018.
Announced by the Government today (25 August), the £8.1m ‘platooning’ trial will see up to three heavy goods vehicles, travelling in convoy, with acceleration and braking controlled by the lead vehicle.
All lorries in the platoon will have a driver ready to take control at any time.
While stakeholders have been largely supportive of the trials, some – including the AA and the RAC Foundation – have expressed concerns.
Read stakeholder reaction from:
The RAC has broadly supported the announcement, but says it is vital that steps are taken to ensure the public are aware of the tests.
Nicholas Lyes, RAC roads policy spokesman, said: “We broadly support the Government’s commitment to a thorough and independent phased trial to examine the safety and feasibility of lorry platooning.
"However it is vital that every step is taken to ensure that the public are made fully aware of the details of these tests to give them confidence that the technology will be safe in practice.
"It is also important that drivers are aware through signage that autonomous platoons are on the carriageway – seeing manned lorries driving very close to each other could be a disconcerting sight in a high speed environment. It is vital that system checks and processes also reduce any likeliness of a catastrophic breakdown amongst any of the lorries.
“The principle offers clear benefits in helping to reduce congestion at the same time as lowering emissions and fuel costs. However, the safety of all other roads users must always be the priority and guiding principle of a robust trial.”
RoSPA has welcomed the trial’s multi-stage approach, but says there will be a need for driver education.
Nick Lloyd, road safety manager, said: “RoSPA supports the multi-stage approach being adopted in this trial, with each phase of testing only beginning if evidence shows that it can be done safely.
"We believe that, in addition to environmental benefits, vehicles travelling in a controlled platoon could also enhance road safety, but the system clearly requires careful research, planning and testing.
"As part of this, there will be a need for driver education so other road users are aware of how to act around a platoon, for example how will lorries travelling in a platoon be identifiable to other road users and how should you react if joining a motorway when a three-vehicle platoon is approaching?
"We look forward to finding out more about the trial as it progresses.”
The AA is concerned that British roads present a unique challenge – for example, small convoys of lorries can block road signs from the view of other road users.
Edmund King, president of the AA, told BBC News: "We all want to promote fuel efficiency and reduce congestion but we are not yet convinced that lorry platooning on UK motorways is the way to go about it.
"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 or Nevada but this is not America."
The RAC Foundation says the benefits of platooning on congested motorways are ‘less certain’.
Steve Gooding, director, 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."
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) describes the trial as the next step for sustainable road transport.
Christopher Snelling, FTA’s head of national policy, said: “Platooning could be an innovative means of reducing fuel use so saving costs and reducing carbon and air quality emissions. Driving closely together, platoons of trucks take up less space on the road, and travelling at constant speeds can help improve traffic flows and reduce tailbacks.
“However, the system has to be shown to be safe on the roads and to deliver the promised 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."
The road safety charity Brake thinks the Government should be focusing on ‘moving more freight from road to rail’.
Jason Wakeford, director of campaigns for Brake, said: "Rather than platooning lorries on already congested UK roads, the Government should instead cut emissions and improve public safety by moving more freight from road to rail. Each freight train takes around 60 HGVs off the road network.
"This rigorous trial is needed to prove whether this technology really can provide the safety and environmental benefits which are claimed."
IAM RoadSmart says road safety must not be jeopardised by any ‘rush towards autonomous technology’.
Neil Greig, IAM RoadSmart director of policy and research, said: "Motorways are our safest roads and that record must not be jeopardised by any rush towards autonomous technology. The pilot study may answer these questions but 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.
“The technology exists to implement platooning but in the real world it must deliver real economic benefits to outweigh our safety worries. How will other drivers know which trucks are in a platoon? Will the sight of tailgating trucks be a distraction? Can we still use slip roads and view important roadside signs clearly?
“The public quite rightly also have real concerns in the light of current terrorist attacks and the rise in cybercrime generally. These are all genuine questions in people’s minds that need to be answered by the trial.”