Driverless truck convoys are on their way

The vehicles communicate using cameras, wifi and radar while travelling in convoy

Driving trucks close together is not only safer but also more fuel efficient, according to industry estimates

Driving trucks close together is not only safer but also more fuel efficient, according to industry estimates

 

The modern car is thinking for itself and offering such options as lane-keeping assist, pedestrian protection and systems to prevent rear-end shunts.

Yet handing over control of the steering wheel has always been the biggest hurdle, but that is starting to happen. Tesla’s new limited autonomous system is reported on this week in Motors, while last week we reviewed the latest self-driving features offered on the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class.

Now comes news that British chancellor George Osborne is to use his budget speech to announce trials for automated convoys as the country starts to try out the new technology.

These are likely to be “road train” systems rather than full automation on all roads. Travelling nose-to-tail in convoys, the vehicles communicate using a combination of wifi, cameras and radar.

These 44-tonne behemoths will have a driver in the cabin who will be ready to intervene if something goes wrong or the system encounters something it cannot cope with. So if you look into the cabin and see a driver without his hands on the wheel, don’t panic, it is all part of the plan.

These trucks will be running pretty much bumper-to-bumper. Volvo has done tests in Sweden and found the gap could be as little as 4m (13ft), which would leave a braking time of just 0.2 seconds if the convoy, known as a “platoon”, were travelling at 70km/h.

If a second’s braking time is required, that would mean a distance of 22m for a platoon travelling at 80km/h.

Lane-sensing technology

Europe

Although each lorry will have a person in the cab, once on the motorway the lorries drive themselves with the driver taking control to leave the motorway and depart to different destinations.

Six of the largest European truck brands – Volvo, Scania, Mercedes, Iveco, MAN and DAF – will criss-cross Europe next month as part of an EU programme to trial the platoon approach.

Mr Osborne will use his budget speech to accelerate Britain’s embrace of such technology, pledging to overhaul regulations to allow driverless cars to run on motorways by 2020.

“Driverless cars could represent the most fundamental change to transport since the invention of the internal combustion engine,” he said.

Nissan has announced plans to introduce fully autonomous vehicles by 2020, while others such as BMW and Mercedes already have some “lane control” abilities in existing cars. The industry says driverless cars could eliminate the majority of crashes as machines do not get distracted or fall asleep.

There are a few hurdles ahead, however. For a start, senior car executives are nervous about the advanced systems being offered.

Ford’s chief technical officer Raj Nair is in charge of the car giant’s roll-out of driverless cars. His issue with the latest systems is that they require human intervention in many circumstances.

Driving functions

Early versions of these systems are already on the market and they work perfectly well in motorway conditions. The car maintains speed, road position, distance from other cars and – married with high-definition satnav data – can even take decisions such as whether to change lanes on a motorway to speed up the journey. In theory you simply set the destination in the satnav and sit back. However, according to Nair, it is estimated that drivers will have to take control about 35 per cent of the time.

“The point is that the system may ask you to take back control and people doing other things will take time to re-engage. I think we’ve all had that moment using normal cruise control when you are in cruise mode and the next thing you know you are closing really quickly on the car in front.

“It takes a few seconds before you react and apply the brakes. Now with adaptive cruise control [which applies the brakes automatically to maintain a set distance with the car in front] that’s one less thing you have to worry about.

“But then what else are you not paying attention to? And that’s at the level of automation we have right now,” said Nair.

Stepping stone

GreenwichMilton Keynes

A key issue for the tests is how to prevent lines of lorries blocking other motorists from joining or leaving the motorway. It is expected that the first convoys will travel at night, when the chance of disrupting other motorists is minimised.

Driving trucks close together is not only safer but also more fuel efficient, according to industry estimates, which range between savings of 5 per cent and 20 per cent from lower fuel use by trucks at the back of the convoy, as they encounter less wind resistance.

The roll-out of real road tests of driverless trucks is another milestone towards self-driving technology, but we are still at the nascent phase of the autonomous revolution. (Additional reporting: The Financial Times Limited 2016)

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