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'Driverless' lorry platoons will soon be on a motorway near you

UK.gov pours £8.1m into fresh series of trials

By Gareth Corfield

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The Transport Research Laboratory will be starting trials of semi-autonomous "platooning" technology, using lorries on UK roads.

Live trials are expected to take place on Britain's "major roads" by the end of 2018, according to a government statement. These will make up the final stage of the project, with the first two being trials on test tracks to determine things such as the best distance between vehicles and identifying roads for trials.

While the initial image this news prompts is probably that of a platoon of networked lorries doing 55.9mph up a single-carriageway hill, the stated aim of the trials is to figure out ways of making the lorries more efficient, saving fuel, "lowering emissions" and "improving air quality".

Transport minister Paul Maynard said in a statement: "We are investing in technology that will improve people's lives. Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion. But first we must make sure the technology is safe and works well on our roads, and that's why we are investing in these trials."

The government is spending £8.1m on the project, via the Department for Transport and Highways England. All lorries in the platoon will have a driver at the wheel in case it goes wrong.

"The trial has the potential to demonstrate how greater automation of vehicles – in this instance, HGVs – can deliver improvements in safety, better journeys for road users and reduction in vehicle emissions," added Jim O'Sullivan, chief exec of Highways England.

The Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) has plenty of experience with autonomous vehicle technologies. As well as having some of Britain's finest vehicle and software minds pondering the deeper questions around driverless tech, it is also heavily involved with autonomous vehicle software startup Oxbotica's trials of driverless vehicles, particularly an ongoing one in Woolwich, southeast London. ®

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