What if there was a technology, already well developed and relatively inexpensive that could make fuel savings of up to 10%, reduce vehicle emissions and at the same time help to reduce congestion and increase road capacity?
That is the potential of HGV platooning technology which is scheduled for its first real-world trial in the UK later on this year. Platooning means linking multiple lorries wirelessly so that they travel in convoy with the speed and braking of the group being controlled by the lead vehicle. It means that platooning enabled lorries, with drivers at the helm of each vehicle, can safely operate much closer together, reducing headway distances from the recommended two seconds to as little as half a second. That's where the fuel savings come in. Closer distances result in less drag and lower fuel consumption. Less fuel, of course, means lower emissions with reductions in gases like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
And not just lower tailpipe emissions. Platoons reduce unnecessary use of brakes and optimize acceleration with the effect of extending tyre life and significantly reducing particulate emissions. Platooning could make a significant contribution to both.
Other benefits could be just as far-reaching. Platoons take up less space than a series of unlinked lorries and the co-ordinated braking and acceleration means better traffic flow. Better flow means less congestion. It could also lead to reduced surface wear and tear, reducing highway maintenance costs and the disruption of roadworks. The platoon drivers themselves should benefit from a less stressful, quieter and safer driving experience: computer reaction times are orders of magnitude faster than human ones.
That doesn't mean the drivers are not working, however. Platooning vehicles are not autonomous, there is always a driver in the cab and hands are always on the wheel; the platooning technology provides automated driver assistance. Drivers can take back full control of the vehicle whenever they need to and for any reason, with the technology ensuring this is done safely.
That's the theory at least. The question is whether all these benefits can be delivered in a commercial operation in the real world and within a UK context.
That is what HelmUK will find out in a world-first on-road commercial and operational trial. The HelmUK consortium, led by TRL on behalf of the Department for Transport and Highways England, with DAF providing the trucks and DHL as commercial partner, plans to run platoons of two and three vehicles on selected routes. The trial is designed to test the benefits of platooning and whether the concept is safe, robust and secure, with the emphasis very much on 'safety'.
TRL have already made significant progress on the safety aspects of the trial with the development of platooning enabled lorry and car simulator studies. The simulators have been used to explore how a cross-section of road users are likely to react to platooning lorries in a number of situations, including entering and leaving the carriageway, while the specifically adapted digi-truck trial has been utilised to develop a robust training programme for platooning drivers. The simulator studies combined with off-road testing will ensure that nothing is being left to chance.
When the on-road trial commences later this year safety will be paramount with participating drivers trained to disengage platooning technology and take full control of the vehicle if they have any safety concerns or if other road users around the platoon are behaving in risky or erratic ways. The lorries will be laden with a suite of sensors recording everything that happens in the cab and around them building up a huge dataset about the drivers, the roads and patterns of behaviour. Highways England advise that as an absolute minimum platooning must demonstrate that it can run without increasing current risk levels before it becomes common place on our roads, but it is hoped that benefits may far exceed this, significantly improving safety on the routes where they operate.
It is this sort of ambitious forward-thinking, evidence-based innovation that can establish the UK as a world-leader not only in road freight transport but in environmentally responsible high-tech transport systems across the board. There is plenty of preparation still to do before a platooning vehicle touches a real road, and many miles to cover before we can be totally sure that platooning can deliver on its promise.
Over the last few years there has been a great deal of argument and uncertainty about how best the UK can keep its freight logistics industry buoyant. The HelmUK trials demonstrate how the UK can maintain its reputation for innovation and exploration, and set out its stall for a future of world leadership in new technologies applied to transport and road freight logistics and beyond.
For more information and project updates, please visit www.helmuk.com