Next year, convoys of self-driving trucks will be driving on U.K. roads

Andrey Pavlov/123RF

Only 30 years ago, the idea of convoys of self-driving trucks would have been a high concept horror movie setup straight out of the Stephen King playbook. Jump forward to 2017, and the U.K. government has just announced that it is greenlighting a trial of the technology on public roads. How far we’ve come!

The technology involves connecting two or more autonomous trucks together using Wi-Fi-based “vehicle-to-vehicle communication” technology so that they operate as a single unit. It’s not entirely autonomous in the sense of having no human involvement whatsoever. Instead, the lead vehicle is controlled by a human driver, with the other self-driving trucks in the convoy following behind in close pursuit. While the other trucks use autonomous technology in their driving, it is the job of the human driver at the front to control the speed and direction of all the vehicles in the convoy, with the others following his or her lead with zero reaction time.

The rationale behind it is that convoys of multiple trucks will require less space on the highway, can take advantage of the slipstreams created by the lead vehicle to reduce carbon emissions, and will help get the public used to self-driving vehicles.

The $10.5 million trial is scheduled to start sometime in 2018. Prior to that, the trucks and human drivers are being put through their paces using a combination of training courses, simulations, and test track trials.

“The U.K. has an unprecedented opportunity to lead the world in trialing connected vehicle platoons in a real-world environment,” said Rob Wallis, CEO of the Transport Research Foundation (TRL). “TRL and its consortium of leading international partners, have the practical and technical knowledge gained from previous projects to understand what is required to put a connected vehicle platoon onto U.K. roads safely. The team is now taking that expertise and uniquely applying it within live traffic operations.”

With similar tech already tested in Singapore and parts of Europe, TRL’s trials are not a world-first. However, the U.K. trial represents one more step on the road to making self-driving vehicles an everyday technology.