Autonomous truck trials: weighing up the risk and reward

The development of autonomous vehicles is something we’ve been following very closely at Black Pepper Software, not least because of the exciting opportunities networked vehicles could bring. Now it seems our first tantalising glimpse of driverless vehicles on UK roads may be close at hand.

The UK government recently announced that new technology to help heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) drive in close convoy will be trialled on public motorways by the end of next year.

That could be a full 12 months before driverless car technology is tested publicly. 

Convoys of trucks

Under the planned trials, up to three HGVs will travel in convoy, with the lead vehicle controlling acceleration and braking for all three vehicles.

Self-driving vehicles will be a quantum leap for the automotive industry, but fully networked trucks and cars will bring a great many other benefits for businesses. These benefits could include seamless integration into IT, logistics, fleet management and supply chain systems, to name but a few. The opportunities for networked vehicles seem endless, as long as businesses have the vision, and right IT partners, to realise them.

Despite the many benefits of networking, it is still a sobering thought that some of the biggest vehicles on our motorways will soon be driven autonomously on some of the most congested roads in Europe.

Public safety concerns

In an attempt to alleviate public safety concerns, the government has promised to thoroughly track test the concept of self-driving truck convoys, also called ‘platoons’, before they’re allowed to take to our roads. They have also reassured the public that a driver will always be on hand should a problem arise.

But this hasn’t stopped motoring organisations such as the AA warning that platoons of HGVs could obscure road signs and motorway exits, triggering accidents and presenting a risk to other road users.

The president of the AA, Edmund King, is also on record saying the government had recently listened to the its concerns and decided against a planned pilot scheme on the M6. 

Compelling benefits

Once you look past these obvious safety concerns, and that may be a big ask for many people, the benefits of platooning HGVs are compelling.

Driving in close proximity to one another, a platoon of vehicles will be more streamlined, cutting both drag and fuel consumption, reducing vehicle emissions and bringing a much-needed improvement in UK air quality – a big target for the UK government.

Platooning will also benefit companies and consumers through cheaper fuel bills while road congestion could be eased thanks to more efficient road usage.

The UK government, which is providing £8.1m of funding, has a clear stake in the trial’s success and wants the UK to make up lost ground to become a world leader in this area.

Similar trials have already proved successful in the US, and an EU challenge in 2016 saw platoons of connected trucks travelling from Germany, Sweden and Belgium converge on Rotterdam, in the Netherlands.

In fact, the latest predictions from Mckinsey suggest that by 2030, up to 15% of new cars sold globally will be autonomous.

Court of public opinion

It will be interesting to see if the global success of autonomous vehicles will be decided in the court of public opinion rather than during scientific real-world tests.

An informed debate should weigh up all the benefits and rewards associated with the technology, but that doesn’t necessarily take into account how emotive a subject driverless vehicles could become.

Fatal accidents, for example, are a fact of life on UK roads with around 1,700 people losing their lives annually.

However, any loss of life caused by an autonomous vehicle, amplified through the media, will have a disproportionately negative impact on the way we see this type of transport, even if overall driverless technology makes our roads safer.

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