Convoys of ‘self-driving’ trucks are heading to U.K. roads

The U.K. is set to follow in the footsteps of the U.S. and begin testing self-driving trucks on public roads in 2018.

Carried out by the Transport Research Laboratory, the trials will involve vehicles traveling in “platoons” of three, the government announced on Friday, August 25. Initial trials will take place in private locations before hitting some of the country’s busiest roads next year.

It looks to be a cautious debut, however, as the lead truck will have a human driver at the controls. The two trucks at the rear will also have humans behind the wheel during the trials, but on-board technology will automatically adjust their speed and braking to keep pace with the truck at the front.

The idea is that this kind of driving, where trucks can travel more closely together, at a steady speed, and in a slipstream, will help to ease congestion on Britain’s busy roads and reduce emissions.

But it’s precisely the busy nature of the nation’s roads that worries the Automobile Association (AA) — a body similar to the AAA in the U.S. — when it comes to testing out the trucks.

Edmund King, president of the AA, told the BBC that while it was of course keen to see improved fuel efficiency and less congestion, he wasn’t sure that truck platooning on major roads was the best way forward, adding that, for example, potentially important road signs can be blocked and therefore missed by other drivers when the groups of trucks drive along close together.

“We have some of the busiest motorways in Europe with many more exits and entries,” King said. “Platooning may work on the miles of deserted freeways in Arizona or Nevada but this is not America.”

U.K. Transport Minister Paul Maynard is, as you’d expect, more upbeat about the plan, claiming that advances such as truck platooning “could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion.” For drivers who often find themselves stuck in gridlock on the M25 — London’s perimeter highway that many people jokingly refer to as “the world’s biggest parking lot” — an outcome like this would be warmly welcomed, though it may take more than a few self-driving trucks to really get the traffic moving on that particular road.

The U.K.’s tentative step toward trials of self-driving trucks on public roads follows similar efforts in the U.S. by the likes of Uber, which acquired driverless truck specialist Otto last year. Tesla is planning to unveil an electric truck in September that some believe will also be self-driving, while smaller outfits like California-based Starsky Robotics are also developing technology to power trucks autonomously.