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The growing case for driverless trucks

Driverless trucks use less fuel, reduce carbon emissions and cut congestion – and the first ‘platoons’ could be just around the corner

Get on a motorway and you shouldn’t see many lorries leaving just a seven-metre gap from a lorry ahead. At 50mph a vehicle will cover this distance in about 0.3 of a second, faster than a human driver’s reaction time.

But according to research firm TNO, driving at 0.3 seconds apart is the future of transportation, offering societal benefits and cost reductions. And if regulators and industry work together, ‘platoons’ of two or more trucks, many of which will include a self-driving vehicle, could be a common sight on the roads by 2020.

In what’s been described as the ‘world’s first ever cross border truck platooning initiative’, fleets of trucks from six manufacturers recently completed a cross-Europe journey to Rotterdam – much of which involved driving in platoons, all thanks to underlying wireless and radar technology called Cooperative Adaptive Cruise Control (CACC).

The vehicles’ journeys were part of the European Truck Platooning Challenge, an initiative organised by the Dutch government as part of the Netherlands’ presidency of the Council of the European Union. Dutch infrastructure and environment minister Melanie Schultz van Haegen explains ‘truck platooning ensures that transport is cleaner and more efficient. Self-driving vehicles also improve traffic safety because most traffic accidents are due to human error’. 

The Conference of European Directors of Roads (CEDR) helped to organise the challenge. Steve Phillips, CEDR’s secretary general, told EJ ‘there’s a lot of interest and momentum building’ and the challenge was a key achievement since it’s the first occasion that cross-border truck platoons from different manufacturers and parts of Europe have run.

Platooning is when one lorry follows another using automated driving technology by way of a wireless (and radar) vehicle to vehicle connection between them.

The first vehicle is driven by a person as normal, and the second vehicle follows autonomously. It may still contain a driver, currently for oversight, monitoring the system and able to takeover if necessary, or the driver could be resting or sleeping ready to swap driving shifts with their colleague so that the platoon never needs to stop for a driver to rest. The trucks travel leaving a far smaller gap between each vehicle than when drivers are driving.

Unlike driverless cars, which to operate autonomously require more distance between vehicles than human drivers would allow, driverless truck platooning is based on a principle of ‘co-operative automated driving’. The goal of the technology linking the vehicles is to enable them to drive as close to one another as possible.

TNO’s research found that the benefits are significant – to society and to transport businesses. By driving at about 0.3 of a second apart, significant savings can be made in fuel consumption of 8-13% for the following vehicle in a platoon and 2-8% for the leading vehicle.

And CEDR’s Phillips emphasises that this leads to significant CO2 reduction: ‘The fuel consumption reduction has a direct impact on reducing CO2 emissions.’

What are the barriers to development? The cost of the technology isn’t currently prohibitive: the costs per vehicle to equip trucks for vehicle to vehicle communication and for additional safety measures work out at €10,000 per truck, according to TNO, and this should reduce to about €2,000 within five years.

Its modelling for three real-life use cases, based on real carriers, shows the business case is clear: the fuel savings already offset the annual costs and the labour cost savings, from reduced driver demand, are ‘pure profit’.

Will a reduced demand for drivers impact on whether policymakers and the public support autonomous vehicles, even if fleets start to embrace them?

Research last year by KPMG, Connected and Autonomous Vehicles – The UK Economic Opportunity, commissioned by The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders found that significant numbers of jobs should actually be created if development of connected and autonomous vehicles continues.

John Leech, KPMG’s UK head of automotive, says: ‘Overall our study found that UK jobs will increase by 320,000 by 2030 and that over £51bn of added value will be created annually for the economy by 2030.’

Leech states that platooning can also lead to less congested roads and has safety benefits – which become apparent even when take-up is still limited.

Back to the challenges. For widespread rollout of connected and autonomous vehicles in general, communication speed and cyber security are crucial, according to Leech: ‘Communication has to be 100% reliable – think about when your mobile phone can’t find a signal: that’s completely unacceptable in a fast-moving vehicle. And manufacturers must improve cyber security; policymakers will need to understand how to regulate this too. Cyber security is a constant war and vehicles will need to be certified on an ongoing basis.’

The challenges of legislation and coordination remain significant, and are part of the reasons why the European Truck Platooning Challenge was launched.

CEDR’s Phillips recently told the EU research and innovation magazine Horizon: ‘We weren’t looking to test the technology aspect. We wouldn’t have been running this challenge if we weren’t sure the technology was safe and ready to use. This was just proof that we can overcome the institutional and operational challenges of running in different countries.’

When EJ caught up with Phillips this month, he praised the cooperation and collaboration of participating countries and manufacturers. And he adds that the recent European Transport Research Conference (TRA16), which took place in Warsaw last month, has helped to move things further – and beyond Europe:

We had some excellent discussions including with The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) in the USA. At TRA16, CEDR organised a one day workshop on automation for all of the road directors of Europe – and FHWA too.’

The Netherlands’ presidency of the Council of the European Union finishes at the end of June 2016 and the UK is scheduled to hold the presidency from July to December 2017. What part is the UK playing in the meantime?

The government recently launched the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles, a new joint policy unit between BIS and DfT. Its remit is to address the interaction among vehicles, infrastructure, and data to achieve these technologies’ significant economic and social benefits’.

The centre is launching a research and development competition later in 2016, funded by BIS via the £100m intelligent mobility fund. This comes after a similar BIS-run £20m feasibility studies and collaborative research and development competition, the winners of which were announced in February.

A DfT spokesperson told EJ: ‘New technology has the potential to bring major improvements to journeys and the UK is in a unique position to lead the way for the testing of connected and driverless vehicles. We are planning trials of HGV platoons – which enable vehicles to move in a group so they use less fuel – and will be in a position to say more in due course.’

The government also says the UK is one of the best countries to develop and test these technologies because of our permissive regulations towards testing automated and driverless vehicles. The UK has a published code of practice for anyone who wants to test driverless vehicles on public roads – and is funding competitions, as discussed above, to encourage innovation.

Does this mean driverless vehicles are about to become commonplace in the UK? Connectivity is here already but technology, especially decision-making algorithms, mapping, sensors and cyber security still needs to be developed further, and, while the UK’s regulatory framework for testing is ‘world-leading’, policymakers must ‘allow the industry to flourish’, according to KPMG’s Leech.

‘Privacy, liability, cyber security and telecommunications standards nevertheless need to be developed and the UK’s continued membership of the EU is helpful in this regard,’ he says.

But with all of the major European truck manufacturers having participated in the European Truck Platooning Challenge in April, and preparations underway for long-term tests in real-life situations, we can expect to see more platoons of connected vehicles on the roads. And that could play a significant role in reducing the carbon emissions of the transport sector.

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