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UK to start self-driving semi-truck trials on public roads in 2018



  • Technologies that were thought to be decades away from maturity are arriving faster than most people anticipate, and as the UK starts autonomous vehicle tests it won’t be soon before we see the first driverless trucks ploughing our highways


Hot on the heels of the UK announcing a ban on sales of combustion engine vehicles from 2040, and tests of fully autonomous cars in London and the development of a Jaguar Landrover (JLR) “living” self-driving car lab on the motorways around Birmingham, the UK Government has now announced that it will start self-driving semi-truck platooning trials on UK public roads in 2018.


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When driving on motorways or major dual carriage ways, there’s little more frustrating than a lorry struggling to overtake another lorry, and one way around this is something called “Platooning,” a system where a fleet of lorries follows the vehicle at the front in convoy, but automated.

Eager to keep up with the self-driving hype that seems to be taking over the world, as everything from cars and semi-trucks, to aircraft and cargo ships go fully autonomous, the UK government is now fast tracking tests of the technology.


Platooning in action

“We’re going to build a system that’s robust enough to work in the real world,” says Richard Cuerden, academy director at the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), “and when we get to the end of our project, we’ll have run a trial with a real operator, real goods and on real UK roads.”

Cuerden says running lorries in platoons involves all the vehicles being connected through Wi-Fi with an access point in each vehicle’s cab letting them communicate with each other. The vehicles then follow the lead lorry and all copy the actions of the driver, for example, when the brakes are applied, the entire fleet slows down at the same time. Essentially, when the trucks are in platooning mode all but the lead vehicles are self-driving.


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“They’re always able to talk with one another,” Cuerden says, “because the robot driving trucks two and three can react so much quicker than you and I can we can get them so much closer together”.

The UK tests will take place in three different stages, with the vehicles being built by engineering firm Ricardo. These include testing three lorries on a test track in platooning mode, simulating the vehicles moving together and also the tests on real roads. The area of the UK where the platoons will operate hasn’t been decided yet, although TRL says trials will take place on a motorway or other major road.

Cuerden says the purpose of platooning is to help vehicles be more efficient and safer as drivers won’t have to sharply apply the brakes or react to those in front of them, and an added benefit is that it could help cut emissions by up to 10 percent.


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“It’s a major thing for the environment,” he says.

TRL’s trials aren’t the first attempt to introduce truck platoons. Earlier this year Scania announced it would begin the “first full scale autonomous platooning operation” on public roads in Singapore. In this case the platoon was designed for transporting containers between port terminals in the city state, but elsewhere, a fleet of trucks from Volvo and Daimler recently travelled 2,000km across Europe.

The UK government has been talking about conducting the trial for some time now but previous attempts were snagged, somewhat surprisingly, by delays after most of the major manufacturers, including Daimler and Scania, snubbing the project, now however it looks like the UK Government is back behind the steering wheel, and once they get started I’m sure there’ll be no stopping them so watch this space. Yes, watch it very intently… not that space this one. Doh.

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