Imagine the scenario: you’re heading along the motorway on your way to visit the in-laws when you notice a small convoy of 4 trucks up ahead, seemingly bunched a little too close together. Upon overtaking, you notice that the driver of the last truck appears to be eating a sandwich using both hands. As you nervously pass the next truck the driver is sitting back and playing with his phone. At the next truck your disbelief turns to shock as you realise there’s no driver whatsoever. But when you reach the first truck the driver is hands to the wheel, concentrating on the road.
By now you might think that you’re hallucinating, but in actual fact ‘truck platooning’ is a possible scenario that’s already been trialled and risk-calculated in places such as Japan, Sweden and Germany. We won’t be far behind either, with former Chancellor George Osborne promising that the UK would soon be leading the way in developing driverless HGV platoons for eventual rollout.
So why the stampede? Well supporters of the technology argue that platooning not only increases driver safety but could also save up to 15% fuel as the ‘drones’ sitting behind the lead truck (always piloted by a trained driver) are caught in its slipstream. And because the distance between vehicles is considerably shorter, there are indications that tailbacks would also be substantially diminished.
Of course there are concerns, especially in this country, which has the highest number of motorway entrances and exits in the world. You can imagine the nightmare of trying to get on a stretch of fast road followed by a line of traffic, as a 44 tonne, ten-truck platoon suddenly blocks your route. There are also weather factors to consider, such as view-obscuring rain splashback generated by the rumbling fleet of HGVs. But those who are advancing the cause are confident that they have the tech to surpass such issues. When safety features include line-marking and obstacle recognition technology and a push-button “highway pilot” that helps to avoid other road users via a radar and camera sensing system, you can’t help but think that the road to platooning is already carved in tarmac.
And what of those future trips to the in-laws? Well, the platoon drone ‘coordinator’ sitting in his cab playing Candy Crush Saga might also have to get used to seeing families passing by in their own driverless cars; catching up on emails, reading books and playing…. simulated driving games!
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