Platoons of lorries running up and down the motorways has come a step closer in the UK with the news that the government is to fund trials that will take place next year. And the results could have a significant impact on how supply chains operate in the future.
Transport minister Paul Maynard is clear about the potential benefits: “Advances such as lorry platooning could benefit businesses through cheaper fuel bills and other road users thanks to lower emissions and less congestion.”
Platoons of trucks can travel much closer together than otherwise, and the aerodynamic benefit of this can cut fuel consumption by ten per cent.
Not surprisingly, the Freight Transport Association has given the trial an enthusiastic welcome: “Platooning could be a real opportunity to optimise logistics on the road – we need to know if it is the way forward as soon as possible,” said the FTA’s Chris Snelling.
So far, most of the discussion around autonomous vehicles and platooning has been focused on the technology – particularly the need to make it safe.
But, the business issues are also going to be a concern for operators. Hauliers know only too well, that cutting the cost of transport is certain to bring demands for rate cuts from customers.
Perhaps not surprising, then, that the Road Haulage Association was rather less enthusiastic than the FTA.
And drivers’ union, Unite, was quick to argue that platooning should not “come at the cost of jobs and wages of highly skilled lorry drivers”.
It also pointed out some of the other challenges. For example, if different hauliers’ vehicles are part of a platoon, which one goes at the front? Only the second and third trucks in the platoon get the fuel saving – so the order in the platoon could be a source of conflict.
And would a haulier want to invest in the technology to enable platooning if there were no guarantee that it would get the benefits?
The trials that will take place over the coming months should show whether platooning is a practical and safe option – but it’s success will depend on resolving the business issues.