As the Government announced £8.1 million funding for truck platooning trials in the UK next year, the news has received mixed responses from various organisations within the logistics and transport sector. Jamie Warren, UK & Irish Director at KMB Shipping considers the impact of the new technology on the transportation industry, and whether the benefits outweigh the concerns.
What is Truck Platooning?
Platooning uses wireless technology to steer a fleet of up to three HGV’s, one following closely behind the other, from the front vehicle. Although the state of the art technology allows the front vehicle to control all aspects of driving for the entire fleet, there are drivers behind the wheel of the vehicles following, ready to take control if necessary (European Truck Platooning). The technology was investigated by the UK government in an initial feasibility study, commissioned in 2014 and published on 25th August this year, when funding for the trials was announced (Gov.uk). The study assessed various factors including regulation, liability, financial costs, and commercial viability, and concluded that the only way to practically assess the technology is by conducting road trials (Gov.uk).
Transport Minister Paul Maynard is a firm supporter of the trials, saying “We are investing in technology that will improve people’s lives,” (Business Cloud magazine). Despite this enthusiasm, responses to the trials have differed cross the transportation sector. The Freight Transport Association believe platooning provides an innovative method for increasing sustainability within the sector.
Christopher Snelling, Head of National Policy for the FTA, welcomes the technology as an innovative way of reducing costs by increasing fuel efficiency whilst reducing emissions (FTA). Snelling argues that “Driving closely together, platoons of trucks take up less space on the road, and travelling at constant speeds can help traffic flows and reduce tailbacks” (Truck and Driver). As the distance between connected vehicles is reduced from around 50m to 15m, platooning is a more efficient use of road space, thus helping to ease congestion.
No Easy Ride
All sounds too good to be true? Well, there are downsides to innovation too, as highlighted by The Road Haulage Association. Richard Burnett, Chief Executive of the RHA, welcomed the developments, but advised that the current focus seems to be on the technology rather than the safety aspect of the system, which should be the prioritised (Logistics Manager)
Adrian Jones, National Officer for the trade union Unite, also voiced concerns, “While Unite isn’t against the use of technology that makes out members’ jobs easier, it should not come at the cost of jobs and wages of highly skilled lorry drivers.” (Logistics Manager).
With the logistics sector contributing to 11% of the UK’s non-financial business economy, employing over 2.5 million people (8% of UK workforce), Jones makes a valid point (FTA).
The RHA question whether the UK road network is even suitable for platooning to begin with, as frequent motorway exits could cause even more queues if platoons were added to the already congested road network (rha.uk.net).
Professor Alan McKinnon, Professor of Logistics, raises other concerns in his blog, highlighting the need for land and infrastructural investment to provide sufficient convoy park areas at various intersections of the road network. McKinnon also questions the system will be managed at a practical level if transport companies collaborate their operations into platoons, and if this does not happen, will it mean the smaller transportation companies will be unable to use the system?
Moreover, as platoons would potentially be using the public road network, the government feasibility study identified public perception as a key issue to consider in trials, particularly public safety fear and lack of knowledge of how the system would work in practice..
At KMB Shipping, we’ve seen huge changes in the road transportation sector over the last thirty years, which can be attributed to the phenomenal rise of the UK economy in this period, as well as the general growth in prosperity and mass consumption of goods in the retail sector. Although the development of truck platooning technology promises to change the face of logistics forever, potentially reducing costs and increasing efficiency, the underlying safety concerns will do little to address sceptics of the system if not addressed by the DfT and Transport Research Laboratory during trials next year.