The news that the UK is following the German example and launching trials of driverless trucks, promises to open up new opportunities to boost the efficiency of long-distance transport.
The proposal from the Department for Transport is that goods vehicles will travel in groups so as to use less fuel. It describes this as “HGV platoons”.
It has been calculated that up to £34 billion could be saved by driverless HGVs. The study by AXA UK and Douglas MacNeill highlighted the potential for labour savings would arise as driverless vehicles reduce the need for drivers; fuel consumption savings; insurance savings would arise if driverless vehicles proved less accident-prone; and vehicle utilisation savings because driverless vehicles would be free from driver working hours rules.
Should that vision become a reality, autonomous trucks would virtually become trains that run on the road rather than rails – with the added advantage that they would need no transhipment of cargo.
However, that is some way in the future. The trial initiated in Germany uses a modified Mercedes Benz Actros and retains a driver in the cab. The highway pilot system does not replace the driver, but supports and relieves the strain on them by dealing with monotonous stretches for them and taking care of annoying stop-and-go driving in a traffic jam.
Mercedes Benz points out that in automated mode the driver has control over the truck at all times and in tricky situations can take over driving of the vehicle again.
The DfT proposal is clearly a first step on a long road. Not only are there technical issues to deal with, there is also the political problem of persuading the public that it is safe to let a 44-tonne truck loose on public roads with no driver behind the wheel. There are also environmental issues that need to be considered.
So will it replace freight trains? Not any time soon. But, there is the potential to reduce the cost of long distance road transport. That would improve its competitive position relative to other modes – notably rail but potentially also short sea. We need to start thinking strategically about the potential impact on the transport infrastructure as well as on logistics strategies.