Nick Reed outlines the next steps which are vital to guaranteeing safe truck platooning trials later this year

The confirmation of truck platooning trials on the UK’s roads later this year (as announced in the Chancellor’s Budget) was welcome news. The planned trial is set to examine the effect of platooning on a number of factors, including improving fuel efficiency and improving traffic flow, as well as improving road safety significantly – indeed, human error is a contributory factor in 95 per cent of road crashes1 . More concrete detail on the trial’s aims and objectives will emerge as the Department for Transport (DfT) seeks to clarify the shape they will take later this year.

However, in the meantime, it’s important to consider the next steps which are essential to ensuring the trials are successful, as the UK transitions towards automated vehicle technology adoption. The impact of increasing automation on our highways infrastructure is a key area that needs to be addressed to guarantee that the technology is successfully embedded across the UK. Both drivers’ transport requirements and the needs of our transport infrastructure are likely to change significantly as the journey to automation gathers pace.

Safety first
Of course, safety must be the government’s biggest priority throughout the duration of the trials. Automation system safety must be proven before it moves to on-road trials, where the testing environment becomes increasingly complex. This will enable haulage experts to establish the scale of the benefits achievable to improve the UK’s road transport efficiency within the context of real-world driving, in addition to providing infrastructure planners with more information on the future needs and requirements of our network.

Automated platooning – key considerations
Moving towards greater levels of automation in trucks could not only deliver some extremely compelling efficiency improvements for the UK’s haulage industry, it could also offer a range of traffic management and road design benefits. The introduction of automated platooning, in which a number of vehicles automatically follow a manually driven vehicle, may facilitate the launch of innovative freight operations such as night-time dedicated semi or fully automated vehicle lanes.

Such a launch has the potential to develop into the introduction of fully segregated freight lanes, possibly as a guided route paved would free motorway capacity for cars and light vehicles across a minimum of two lanes. This lane segregation would enable road planners to achieve greater cost efficiencies across the areas that will be used by lighter vehicles, due to the reduction in strength and durability in the road base required.

Additionally, a fully automated transport system should reduce the need for sharp braking, which will reduce the level of friction required on road surfaces. This could potentially allow current requirements for polished stone values (PSV) and texture depth requirements to be modified, which would deliver further cost efficiencies across our road infrastructure.

Narrower lanes required
UK roads feature variable speed limits and hard shoulder running to smooth traffic flow, give greater journey time reliability and ultimately increase highway capacity. A system populated by fully automated, connected vehicles could take this concept further on interurban roads. Not only would this enable vehicles to travel more closely and potentially at higher speed than at present, but it could also allow for lanes to be narrowed to increase capacity further, or to vary vehicle alignment to prevent rutting. Combined with the smoother driving that will become more prevalent as the number of autonomous vehicles on our road increases, maintenance requirements and costs could be significantly reduced.

Signs and road markings
Automation could dramatically affect the requirement for information displayed on dynamic road signs. For example, information could be sent directly to in-vehicle information systems, and eventually to an automated vehicle’s guidance systems. With suitable human factors research, this could enable more flexible and innovative traffic management.

Some automation technologies, such as lane keeping systems, may require high quality road markings that can be recognised by on-board sensors. However, with detailed digital mapping, future automated systems may not require any road markings, lighting, road signs or variable message systems.

Enabling our roads to support automation The speed at which automation develops is dependent on a number of factors, including enabling our road infrastructure to support automation. It will certainly require a change in mind-set and operational practices, and an increase in investment from our road building sector for the changes ahead. With the combined costs to our economy of road crashes and congestion running to billions, there is certainly a powerful incentive to make that investment.

11983 Sabey (TRRL LF976) Factors contributing to road accidents

Nick Reed is academy director at the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL).
TRL provides independent and impartial world-class research, consultancy, testing and certification for all aspects of transport. Commercially independent and with more than 80 years of knowledge and experience embedded in its history, TRL’s work encompasses a breadth of areas that shape and form today’s transport decisions including: safety, highway engineering and maintenance, sustainability, attitudes and behaviours, simulation and modelling, climate change, engineering, product development, standards and specifications.

For more information, please see www.trl.co.uk