Successful autonomous truck platooning trials

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Nick Reed, academy director at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in the UK, outlines the next steps that are vital to guaranteeing safe truck platooning trials later this year.

The confirmation in Chancellor George Osborne’s recent Budget of truck platooning trials on the UK’s roads later this year is indeed welcome news. As a research body, TRL feels it’s the logical next step following the research we completed with Ricardo for the Department for Transport (DFT) on the feasibility of operating commercial vehicle platoons.

We expect a wealth of detail on the trials to emerge as the DFT seeks to clarify the shape they will take later this year. It is currently believed that the planned trial will examine the effect of platooning on improving fuel efficiency and traffic flow. However, it is important to consider the next steps that are essential to ensuring the trials are successful as the UK transitions toward automated vehicle technology.

Safety must be the government’s biggest priority throughout the course of the trials. Automation system safety must be proven before it moves to on-road trials, where the testing environment becomes increasingly complex. This will enable haulage experts to establish the scale of the benefits achievable to improve the UK’s road transport efficiency within the context of real-world driving.

Moving toward greater levels of automation in trucks could deliver some extremely compelling efficiency improvements for the UK’s haulage industry. However, driver and industry confidence are vital to ensuring a successful roll-out of the technology, which is why both must be considered from the very beginning of the trials. This will enable haulage professionals to examine the practical requirements of platooning in a commercial and operational environment.

The precise scope of the trials remains open to definition, but we envisage that all participating vehicles will have fully trained and qualified drivers at the controls at all times. As a result, drivers’ needs must be considered a key priority.

For example, in the future, drivers of platooning trucks may be required to engage in other useful activities while their truck is following the lead vehicle. This could involve completing paperwork or, if the technology is proven to be robust and safe enough, perhaps even sleeping. This would be a particularly effective and efficient development if truckers are sharing the lead driving role as part of a platoon, reducing the need for long stopovers for drivers to rest.

However, before efficiency improvements can even be considered, further training for drivers of the convoy’s trucks will be vital to ensure the safe operation of the platoon, with particular attention paid to the in-vehicle systems that control platoon formation.

March 30, 2016

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