Towards self-driving trucks

 Written by Sagar Harinayan

DAF has been selected by the UK’s Department of Transport and Highways England, to participate in a two-year truck platooning trial in the UK. Platooning refers to the situation when several trucks are traveling in fixed formation, with minimal manual control. This initiative will be led by Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), UK, in an attempt to enhance efficiency of road transport. DAF Trucks will be supported by its partners, research organization TNO, media company Ricardo, and logistics powerhouse DHL. It is mainly directed at Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs).

During this trial, trucks will remain separated by a small distance, using high-end wifi-P, radar and cameras. These trucks, being wirelessly connected to each other, will be in a position to respond to the leader. Vehicle to vehicle communication is key. For instance, if the first truck needs to apply brakes, all trucks will repeat this, maintaining the distance. Further, unnecessary acceleration and slipstreaming will be minimized, leading to approximately 10% lower fuel consumption. This rubs off on the carbon emissions as well, since every truck is running on optimum power. However, the best possible outcome of these platooning trials will be enhanced road-safety. Firstly, due to automated responses made possible by advanced driver assistance systems, reaction time is minimized. This eliminates accidents due to delayed human reactions. Secondly, none of the trucks will be switching lanes to overtake and the other drivers on the road will know exactly what to expect. Even while joining or exiting a motorway, a certain order is followed, increasing safety and avoiding careless mishaps.

Although truck platooning is a major step towards self-driving trucks, a driver is still required. Ron Borsboom, member of DAF’s board of management said, “Every truck needs a man or woman in the cab. On secondary roads or in urban areas, the driver needs to be in control of the truck.” He further added that such truck platooning trials are aimed at long distance carriers, which generally ply main roads and motorways. In case of emergencies, there needs to be a driver to override the automatic control and exercise action. Platooning in no way indicates an end to the truck-driving profession. Owing to the extreme difficulty faced by many in manoeuvring HGVs, such measures are required to reduce the burden on the drivers. Regarding the significant consequences of platooning, Borsboom added, “The trials will enrich our understanding and knowledge of the benefits platooning can deliver, but there is a lot of technical development ahead of us before introducing platooning into the market.” Their intention is to build a case in conjunction with Department of Transport, to demonstrate increased traffic efficiency due to platooning. However, some matters related to legal framework and liability are yet to be sorted.

As is the case with every technology, there are many still resistant to this change. Edmund King, president of the AA (which was formerly Automobile Association), made a couple of good points. Firstly he said that motorways in the UK are extremely busy, with numerous entries and exits. Platooning trucks, regardless of how well they are controlled, could cause traffic hold-up and delay. Secondly, King highlighted that trucks could hide road-signs from view of others, creating some confusion while exiting a motorway. In view of these arguments, perhaps UK might not be the best place to experiment. However, one has to start somewhere. And surely all the involved parties will be aware of the possible menaces. It will be interesting to see how well they implement these trials, so that it becomes a mainstay in future.