The United Kingdom had promised this in 2014. Now it is the first nation to trial wide-spread use of self-driving commercial lorries.
Automated lorry convoys
Similar tests have taken part in the United States, Germany and Japan. Obviously, British roads will by their very nature provide the biggest challenge yet. British motorways are among the busiest and Europe. They lack the grid-like structure or flat geography which other nations sometimes benefit from. The contract was awarded to the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to carry out the testing of automated lorry convoys. A convoy is made of one to three lorries. They take instruction from the vehicle at the front controlled by a human driver, which should ensure a safe and trouble-free trial.
The benefits to these convoys are reduced fuel consumption, reduced carbon emissions and reduced traffic congestion. Because the lorries drive far closer together than would be possible or practical with human drivers, air is forced over the top of the lead vehicle and goes over the roofs of the subsequent autonomous lorries. This means the second and third lorry in the convoy are not battling air resistance and therefore use less fuel.
The speed, acceleration, braking and other more technical functions are controlled by the lead vehicle, though human drivers currently do the steering in the second and third vehicles.
Not all are happy about those trials
There has been some push-back to the trial, however, with organisations such as the AA raising concerns about the wireless control having a negative effect on safety. They have made claims that the lorries in such close succession may block road signs for other users. Besides, they might cause problems at the exits and entries to the motorways where road users are most likely to act erratically. The RAC made similar claims and have stated that the stop-start nature of British motorways mean that the air resistance related energy savings may be ineffective.
The trials are taking place on secured test tracks but are expected to expand to open public roads next month. The sections of public roads will be carefully chosen by the TRL with the correct number of junctions and the average amount of traffic taken into account.
AI in control
The AI controlling the lorries is suitably advanced for the task but special consideration has had to be given for human error on the part of other road users. The gap between the lorries is tiny and would be very difficult for other drivers to try and manoeuvre into. However, real life experience on the roads has given us ample evidence that people can and will do silly things. That includes risking their own lives for an insignificant road advantage. For this reason there are procedures in place if a human-controlled car gets in between the lorries, such as the lorries giving way and then passing control over to a human.
Despite misgivings by some organisations, this is something that has been done on a small scale before. A large self-driving lorry carrying Budweiser made a 120 miles trip from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs in the USA, in what was the world’s first commercial shipment by a self-driving vehicle. The driver was supervising the journey from the sleeping bunk inside the cabin, but did not need to intervene for the duration of the journey. This is despite the fact that the lorry navigated Interstate 25, central Denver, Monument Hill and Colorado Springs during its trip.
Different roads, different laws
Finland’s capital city of Helsinki has also already deployed self-driving public transport. These autonomous buses, electric-powered Easymile EZ-10 vehicles, will be carrying up to a dozen passengers at a time along routes through Helsinki. Finland has been responsible for massive leaps forward in the self-driving technology area due to the fact that under Finnish law, vehicles can legally be on a public roadway without a driver. This has made Finland a popular site for testing self-driving vehicles, though other nations have found loopholes such as having a human at the wheel but without any manual input, such as with the Budweiser lorry.
The United Kingdom has already trialled buses of its own, supermarket delivery vans and self-driving cars – but not yet on this scale. One nation that has taken the opposite step is India, who have banned self-driving cars in order to ‘protect Indian jobs’. Though evidence suggests that self-driving cars may be better for levels of employment in nations than traditional vehicles once fully implemented, India has made clear that they do not plan to reverse this decision.
One of the major sticking points is the legal quagmire that is the art of coming up with rules and regulations for self-driving cars. Should laws and regulations be local so that they can be tailored to specific areas, terrain and settlements? Or should the laws be national to enable better regulation and make it easier for businesses and governments to both create and adhere to rules? Also, how should driverless cars or lorries deal with moral dilemmas? For example if there are four adults in a vehicle and it is about to hit a pregnant woman pushing a child in a pram, should the vehicle strike the pedestrians because three fatalities are less than four? Or should the car swerve and strike a wall/lamppost and therefore put the adults at risk to save children?
Clearly the technology is only half the battle, with legal and moral avenues hurrying to keep up. That said, the self-driving lorries are a major step forward for this very promising technology. We can expect to see them on our roads in increasing numbers in the coming years. A major milestone will be when these autonomous lorries can travel the standard major land trade routes throughout Europe, such as from Dover to Calais or vice versa and then onwards into either country. In the comings years, typical boundary partners like the United Kingdom and France or the United States and Mexico will need to come together to ensure that their rules and regulations match up – whatever it takes to keep the trade, and therefore money, flowing.