Automated “platoons” of up to ten lorries in a row, all controlled by computer, could be heading for British roads under a plan to revolutionise freight transport.
The Department for Transport is sending a fact-finding mission led by Bernie Frost, its chief engineer, to Sweden to assess tests of the technology on the main Swedish motorway.
The convoys of lorries are designed to cut emissions because of reduced drag and to save lives by removing the capacity for human error.
The department will publish a feasibility study for a possible trial on British trunk roads in December, despite early fears that the technology may be vulnerable to computer hackers and is likely to spread fear and confusion among British drivers.
A computerised convoy took to the E4 motorway south of Stockholm last week. Despite the initial shock at watching a driver hand control of his brakes and accelerator to a wi-fi box mounted on the dashboard of his 40-tonne truck, the system appeared to work well.
Other drivers were unfazed by passing a 120-tonne, 30-wheel road train.
Scientists from Scania, the lorry manufacturer, claim that fuel bills and emissions will be cut by 10 per cent and that the reduced gaps between vehicles will mean that more traffic can be squeezed on to congested motorways.
They are lobbying governments to change the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic, which sets international driving standards, to allow automated driving across Europe.
“We can do this if society gives us the green light. Technology is safer than drivers, particularly in bad weather,” said Gunnar Tornmalm, head of materials technology at Scania.
However, safety campaigners are wary of relaxing the rules governing the haulage fleet, which is responsible for 10 per cent of the 35,000 people killed on European roads each year.
Edmund King, president of the AA, said: “While HGV platoons might work in the Outback of Australia, freeways of Nevada or deserted highways of Sweden, I don’t think they would work on the congested motorways of Britain. We have a smaller landmass, fewer roads and more motorway entries and exits.” He added: “There would be obvious dangers of long platoons blocking road signs, obstructing cars getting on and off motorways and intimidating some drivers.”
A DfT document acknowledged many of those concerns, but it concluded that “this type of transport system could have huge benefits if it could be safely implemented on UK roads”.
The main benefits are derived from technology that allows trucks to travel far closer together than at present, cutting the distance between lorries from an average two or three seconds to just one, or even half a second — less than ten metres at 50mph. This reduces drag and cuts fuel consumption and emissions by up to 10 per cent.
The lorries communicate via wi-fi so that each is instantly aware of changes in acceleration or braking of the lead vehicle and automatically follows suit.
So far, 38 trucks and 130 drivers have been used in road tests. The drivers are divided on the system’s merits.