Has the EU really been trialling driverless trucks?

In early April, the EU commissioned brands such as Volvo, Scania, Daimler, Iveco, DAF and MAN to trial a new generation of platooning, a method more commonly known as “driverless trucks”. This took place on a route between Brussels and Holland spanning more than 2000km in a bid to see if this method was feasible on public roads.

Were these trials actually driverless?

The trucks were not fully driverless, as these vehicles did indeed require at least one driver each – with many having its own on board team – and were not fully autonomous as may have been the public perception. Indeed, large commercial vehicles capable of autonomously driving themselves are expected to debut significantly behind driverless cars due to a range of associated complications. In any case, industry voices indicate that driving forces such as the shortage of skilled drivers, the associated improvements in safety and the possibility of reduced insurance premiums combine to make this an inevitable reality eventually.

What is platooning?

Platooning is a method in which multiple vehicles are grouped closely together in order to increase road capacity and improve the fuel efficiency of each truck. By running groups of vehicles back-to-back and in close vicinity to one another, the air drag pushing back on the following trucks is effectively reduced, meaning that less fuel is consumed by each subsequent vehicle. In addition, roads become more spacious as more room is freed for other vehicles.  

Through radar, GPS and Wi-Fi technology, the 30 ton plus vehicles were synchronised to align to as little as four metres apart and behave in complimentary ways, with the lead truck determining the route, speed and position of the platoon. The following platoon vehicles become automatically more responsive, allowing a wider berth if another vehicle comes in between them, and if the lead vehicle suddenly stops or slows down, the next trucks mimick this behaviour immediately to prevent accidents.

What many publications failed to mention was that a small team tended to be along for the ride, and that at least one driver is required to be seated in each vehicle to drive and oversee the platooning process. Indeed, the autonomy of each vehicle outside of the driver is relatively limited: they are able to align or brake at certain distances and stay steered within one lane without assistance, but that is essentially the extent of their powers. The lion’s share of control remains with the driver, who is also responsible for overseeing this process.

What are the benefits to platooning?

Platooning is said to create a safer driving environment on the road, with 90% of traffic accidents reportedly occurring due to lapses in concentration. Indeed, these lapses are not as immediately problematic when mediated through an automated, connected system. Moreover, this method is projected to cut workforce costs and streamline deliveries, as drivers will need to take fewer breaks due to this augmented system. By reducing the air drag across the vehicles while they are in formation, a crucial saving of up to 20% in fuel consumption may also be possible.

Concerns surrounding public trust remain however, as this automated system is viewed as unsafe by many. Moreover, forming closely knit streams of vehicles is said to make navigation for others more difficult in certain situations, and there is of course the more immediate technical problem of how to interlink trucks of different makes and models.

The development of platooning poses an interesting challenge and opportunity for vehicle routing and scheduling. In the future, routing optimisation software may be required to take platooning into account and prescribe opportunities for this method both prior to the journey and in real time in order to deliver the very best cost-efficiency for each journey.

This platooning technology is also expected to have a limited trial in the UK, with several trucks set to be tested on the M6 in Cumbria at an undisclosed time. For further information on the testing of platooning in the UK, visit: https://www.trucklocator.co.uk/hub/driverless-trucks-platooning-news/.